Cost of outside legal advice doubles at 42 councils

Andy Abbott
Image caption Andy Abbott said councils often open themselves up to legal action while trying to save money

A doubling of spending on outside legal advice by more than 40 local councils has been labelled "ridiculous" by people fighting funding cuts.

Figures from 270 of the 408 councils asked by the BBC showed £322m was spent last year on in-house legal teams and £142m on external legal services.

The Local Government Association (LGA) said councils often hired outside help to complement in-house lawyers.

But anti-cuts campaigners say the money should be spent on services.

Linda Burnip, from Disabled People Against Cuts, said the amount councils were spending on legal advice was "pretty staggering".

"The more they spend on legal costs the less they have to spend on services," she said.

"People are losing free bus passes, being charged for blue badges and housing is becoming a major issue for a lot of disabled people because there is not enough housing that is accessible.

"I think people experiencing cuts find it difficult to understand why so much money is going on legal advice."

'Unpredictable' costs

The BBC asked all councils in the UK for internal and external legal spending figures for the past five years.

Of the 270 councils that provided full details, about a third spent more on external legal advice in 2018-19 than in any of the previous four years.

For some councils, rising legal costs reflected involvement in major infrastructure projects.

South Northamptonshire, for example, has seen its external legal spending rise 233% from £7,877 to £26,302 in the past five years.

This had been partly caused, said a spokesman, by its preparations for the new HS2 high-speed railway between the West Midlands and London, and the development of its Local Plan.

"Some of this can be predicted and some not," he added. "The type and amount of legal advice required in any particular year will depend on the issues that the council is dealing with."

Big spenders

  • Cornwall Council's external legal spending has risen 147% in five years, from £250,757 to £621,475. The BBC asked the council for an explanation for the rise. The council has declined to answer
  • Derbyshire County Council's external spending rose from £831,905 five years ago to £2,052,424 in 2018-19. The council said the biggest area of increases had been in children's services, schools and adult social care
  • Devon County Council reported an external spend increase from £962,721 in 2014-15 to £1,548,363 last year. Two thirds of the spending went on children's services with an increasing amount being spent on the legal costs of partnerships with other organisations
  • Birmingham City Council spent £2m on outside legal advice last year. The amount spent on personal injury and negligence claims went up from £24,231 in 2015-16 to £131,285 last year

Some of the largest authorities, such as Lancashire County Council and Essex County Council, refused to provide details of their spending, however Essex has increased its legal team from to 33 members of staff in 2008 to 53 a decade later.

Analysis of spending data revealed Essex County Council spent more than £7m with a single law firm - Slaughter and May - in 2018-19.

The council would not give details of what the spending was used for, claiming "the cost of external legal advice is commercially sensitive and frequently confidential".

A spokeswoman for the Conservative-controlled authority said it was "currently involved in significant and complex litigation" while also needing legal support in "all aspects" of its work.

"In all cases, the council will carefully consider the most efficient and effective way of doing this which may involve using its in-house legal service, or engaging external support," she said.

Labour group leader Ivan Henderson said he was "really puzzled and concerned" by the council's refusal to state the amount it spent on in-house lawyers or what the fees discovered by the BBC related to.

"Council taxpayers have a right to know what their money is being used for," he said.

The council recently stepped back from proposals to shut 25 of its 74 libraries. It is now seeking expressions of interest from voluntary groups.

Andy Abbott, from campaign group Save Our Libraries, said: "It does seem fairly extraordinary to be spending something like £7m on one legal company.

"It just seems ridiculous when you think about it. This is the irony of what is going on when you've got austerity.

"You've got a council abandoning their responsibilities to run essential public services and then what happens, because they are not providing those services, they get themselves on the end of legal cases which end up costing far more money."

Image caption Deborah Evans said council legal teams played an essential role

A spokesman for the LGA said nearly half of councils it surveyed reported "significant recruitment and retention issues when it comes to appointing in-house lawyers".

These difficulties had meant some councils were having to take on locum lawyers or outsource work to external legal firms.

Deborah Evans, chief executive of Lawyers in Local Government, said rising council legal costs were down to recruitment issues in the public sector, major redevelopment projects that needed expert advice and government funding cuts.

She said many councils "really cut back" on the number of lawyers they employed.

"Lawyers are essential to the functioning of a local authority," Ms Evans said. "If there are not sufficient lawyers in house to deal with the work that comes in they then have to look to external firms to plug the gap."

She said councils faced challenges in restructuring services following government funding cuts.

"When a local authority is considering cutbacks, restructuring or changing the way it provides services it needs to get that very experienced external legal advice."

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