The view that local government lawyers simply provide back office services is misguided and failes to appreciate the contribution they make to the community and taxpayers, writes Benjamin Watts.
In these straitened times, it is very fashionable to view legal services as a “back-office” function, far removed from the hallowed frontline. Lawyers can be viewed as a reactive or inhibiting force preventing organisations from delivering the services that really matter.
My experience is that public sector lawyers do deliver front line services but that our role is often missed. The challenge is to make decision makers understand the importance of lawyers without standing uncomfortably or unflatteringly in the spotlight. There can be nothing worse than desperately trying to persuade someone of the lawyer’s role or achievements, far better to achieve it more subtly.
In certain circumstances achieving that understanding can be made easy by opportunity. At Kent County Council, we recently brought successful judicial review proceedings against the Secretary of State for Education. We handled those proceedings in-house and in so doing gained an opportunity to demonstrate our legal skills to the most important people in the authority. We already held a significant judicial review expertise but it was important that we took the case and didn’t simply farm it out to an expensive London firm.
It is cases and opportunities like these that are why I chose to become a public sector lawyer and although challenging it is important not to let them pass by. They empower and develop the lawyers within your team and it is far better to draw in experience or expertise where it is necessary. We work with a number of other lawyers to help supplement their team to allow them to deliver niche and complex legal services to their organisation and build their own reputation in the process.
Much of the work that public sector lawyers do is seen as a success for the client department, notwithstanding the cajoling, preparation and expertise that the lawyer injects into a case or advice. In terms of localism and the frontline, public sector lawyers achieve tangible and measurable outcomes on a variety of issues rarely likely to be discussed at a corporate level but that make a real difference to our communities.
I used to work for a Police Force legal unit and the work of the team included applications to close down crack houses, applications for Sexual Offences Prevention Orders, applications to forfeit the proceeds of crime and a variety of applications to combat anti-social behaviour. I now lead a team that also prosecutes environmental crimes such as fly-tipping, makes applications in relation to unlawful encampments and appears in the Magistrates and Crown Court bringing disreputable traders to justice.
The local government lawyer also contributes in a subtle way by saving money through the successful defence of employment and civil claims, the better drafting of agreements, the proper negotiation of property interests and ensuring that the Council acts lawfully, reasonably and proportionately.
In these difficult times, the work of a local government lawyer is often best expressed by the impact it has on our taxpayers. Last year, I ran an environmental prosecution that resulted in a defendant pleading guilty and receiving a fine and being ordered to pay the costs of the landowner to make his land good.
After the hearing, the landowner came and thanked me for my influence on the case and thanked the organisation for bringing the claim which had restored his belief in the County Council. He felt listened to and supported through our prosecution from an initial place of helplessness when six tonnes of rubbish was dumped on his doorstep. We have had a considerable run of successful prosecutions over the past year which have resulted in offenders being brought to justice and improved lives for the communities previously blighted by fly-tipping.
I have specialist Trading Standards lawyers within my team who have made a significant difference to the lives of the people of Kent through their prosecutions in the past few months. These prosecutions have included those for offences relating to selling cigarettes to children, and for the sale of food that is past its sell by date. They have included offences for misleading and fraudulent sales techniques, counterfeit items and for dangerous and harmful goods. One of our cases resulted in lengthy custodial sentences of eight and ten months respectively for two men who sold fake goods and dangerous electrical items at Kent boot fairs.
The reason I mention these cases is that they affect large parts of our community and that community often writes or rings in to the organisation to express its thanks for the work of the officers and the lawyers. Through working in a more embedded way with these clients they are more likely to become advocates for our role in their team and value our input. These prosecutions involve us stepping out into our communities and protecting and supporting our officers to get the case through to a successful outcome. They provide lawyers with an opportunity to be anything but back office in delivering the organisation’s aims and objectives.
I am pleased that senior officers within my Council are aware of the contribution that we make to the organisation. We have built effective prosecution teams with our Trading Standards and Clean Kent colleagues, which means that we work effectively together to achieve important outcomes for the community and what could be more frontline than that?