Softly spoken lawyer given a powerful voice>

Chris Fogarty reports

At the beginning of a year in which he is expected to deal with the problems of 3,000 solicitors, newly elected Local Government Group chair Peter Pilgrem has been facing a few of his own.

One of his final tasks before dashing to the Local Government Group (LGG) conference in Cambridge on 11 April, was to explain the implications of the European Court of Justice's recent Suzen decision on the Acquired Rights Directive to members of his local authority.

The Isle of Wight council, where Pilgrem is legal services manager, had signed new home help services contracts a few days earlier, and it had been thrown into confusion by the judgment.

The stress of dealing with such issues is exacerbated because, in common with other local authorities, budget cuts at the Isle of Wight council mean it can no longer hire a trainee solicitor to bolster its three-lawyer department.

At least no-one can accuse Pilgrem of being isolated from real legal issues on the island. The suggestion that life on the Isle of Wight must be pleasant makes him slightly defensive – perhaps born of an attitude within certain quarters of the legal profession towards local government lawyers.

"I think in some places there is probably a misconception that we do not have a lot to do," says Pilgrem. "But it is not a place where you can come for a quiet life. I have to deal with a variety of work, which I enjoy. You have to know a lot."

He also admits that the public service aspect of the work is part of the attraction. "If someone really wants to make money they, should go work in the City of London," he says.

Having outlined the growing pride local government lawyers take in their work, Pilgrem talks about the problems they face.

"Compulsory Competitive Tendering is putting people under a lot of pressure. We [the LGG] feel the competitive side of it is unnecessary," he says.

For many lawyers, CCT is not simply a policy matter, it is something that could put them out of a job if the private sector proves to be more efficient.

But even if he does not like the competitive aspect of CCT, Pilgrem is pleased with how successful local authority legal departments have been in retaining work.

He is also concerned about the confusing maze of regulations surrounding the Private Finance Initiative and agrees that central government uses the rules as a leash to keep local government in check.

Yet it is the recent decision not to relax the severe restrictions on higher court rights of audience for employed lawyers that sparks Pilgrem's strongest reaction.

"I am very disappointed by the result of the decision of the Lord Chancellor and four senior judges," says Pilgrem. "I think it shows an ignorance of the situation. We are in the same profession as them."

Pilgrem had heard Lord Mackay talk in favour of granting rights at an earlier LGG conference – so his displeasure is directed towards the designated judges. He wonders if the move is another case of legal snobbery towards local government solicitors.

Pilgrem's assessment of the issues confronting local government lawyers were strongly endorsed by colleagues at the conference, a fact which suggests the new chair has a keen sense of the needs of the group's membership.

Although he talks so quietly the tape recorder can barely pick up his voice, his obvious grasp of the issues means that the LGG's new chair will never be shy of speaking out.

pilgrem's progress

Peter Pilgrem joined Surrey Council in 1973. He took articles and qualified as a solicitor in 1979.

He left a year later for Hereford & Worcester Council, where he was an assistant solicitor, and in 1985 he was appointed senior solicitor at Wiltshire Council. He took up his latest position at the Isle of Wight in 1987.

He lists "four Is" as the principles he wants to promote during his year in the chair:

Independence: local government solicitors are still officers of the court and should be professionals who can advise in different situations.

Integrity: they should be true to the law and true to their position in local government.

Insight: they should offer a broad view of the actions their councils can take.

Inventiveness: they should be able to think creatively and constructively.