Labour to take axe to government lawyers as civil service cuts bite

The government is planning to axe scores of its lawyers, reversing a rate of growth in its legal system that is 1,000 per cent higher under New Labour than under the Conservatives.

Several key government lawyers confirmed to The Lawyer that cuts were imminent. The head of the Government Legal Service Doug Walters said: “Government lawyers are not exempt from the exercise [of reducing civil service levels]”. The date of the cuts will be up to individual departments to set.

A senior Government source added weight to the expectation of considerable legal spend cuts. He told The Lawyer: “One department has said it has to find savings in terms of its legal spend. The department in question is looking at services provided by its legal team and has decided not to have as many lawyers as it currently does.”

These cuts follow an extraordinary rate of growth in the number of government lawyers since New Labour came to power in 1997.

Between 1992 and 1997 the number rose by just 50, while it has grown by 652 under Tony Blair’s rule.

This means Labour has expanded its legal department by an average of just under 100 a year – against 50 for the whole last five years of the Tories’ rule.

However, there has already been signs of a winding down of government legal spend. In the past year the number of lawyers rose by 61, from 1,878 to 1,939, against increases of 117 in 2002-03 and 157 in 2001-02.

The legal head of one government department said: “As a department we’ve taken a headcount reduction and we in the legal department are sharing in the pain.”

Rapid growth in legislation and the increased litigiousness of society are the main causes of the growth, which is soon to come to an end, alongside a general expansion of Whitehall bureaucracy.

David Seymour, head of legal at the Home Office, which has 50 lawyers now compared with 18 in 1997, said: “Policy can no longer be devised without knowing the legal parameters from the outset, meaning lawyers need to get involved in the policy process at an earlier stage – so you need more of them.”