South Norfolk Council will this week consider whether to join nplaw, the shared legal service hosted by Norfolk County Council, with effect from 1 April.
The proposed move would see South Norfolk join nplaw for ten years, unless the arrangement is terminated earlier under the terms of the stakeholder agreement. The council would also be able to withdraw after five years, but would have to give at least one year’s notice.
If approved at a meeting of full council on 22 February, South Norfolk will undertake formal due diligence. A change management plan to manage the transition to nplaw will also be drawn up.
The nplaw service was launched in October 2010 with 70 lawyers from Norfolk County Council, Norwich City Council and Great Yarmouth Borough Council.
South Norfolk has three solicitors and one legal executive, according to the Law Society and Chartered Institute of Legal Executive databases.
The proposal to join nplaw came about after the council drew up a business case identifying all the options, including retaining the status quo, for the future provision of the council’s legal service.
A report prepared for the council meeting said the aim of the recommended option was to “increase resilience and flexibility, reduce costs, and provide a greater all round service by working more effectively, and in turn increase user satisfaction with the service”.
It acknowledged that South Norfolk’s existing legal service was highly regarded, but said resilience was already a concern.
The report highlighted fears that the existing service “whilst currently operating in an effective way for certain services (planning, property), lacks the ability to operate efficiently across the whole of the organisation due to the size of the team, and whilst fortunate to have not suffered any loss of staff recently, could, in the very near future, come under pressure due to potential retirements, or experience staff moving elsewhere to further their careers”.
This could leave a gap in service provision and leave the council vulnerable, the report warned.
Outsourcing was considered as an option in the drafting of the business case, but was rejected.
“The costs of external provision would far outweigh any benefits,” the report said. “Indeed having spoken to legal practices, they may be unlikely to want to take local authority staff into private practice, as they possess a narrow field of expertise.”
Other options to buy into a framework contract or establish a mutual were analysed but rejected.
South Norfolk revealed that it had contacted all authorities in the county to understand their current thinking around service provision for the legal service.
“Partnership working is recognised by many as the way forward, and numerous local authorities are now engaged in partnerships/shared services,” it said. “There are a number of different models taking shape for legal services, including regional collaboration.”
Joining nplaw, the report said, would allow the partnership to grow, “utilising the experience of the SNC legal team, and using the additional resource to increase the income to the partnership”. This will increase the share of surplus income returned to the stakeholder authorities.
Feedback from existing users of the nplaw service suggested that whilst there had been initial teething problems with the partnership, there was an extremely high level of satisfaction. The service delivery had improved from what they were used to having delivered in-house, the report said.