Flying high

One of the youngest heads of a local authority legal service, Terry Osborne has transformed Brent Council’s legal department in less than three years. Steve Hoare discovers how

On entering the London Borough of Brent’s town hall, I pass the bar, check the cricket score and stroll through the dancehall, which is playing a particularly loud ballroom tune for the local blue-rinse brigade. This is a colourful place to work and the council’s fledgling legal team have had to deal with a range of issues that match its drama. They range from the farce of Wembley’s protracted redevelopment to the horrors of the Climbie inquiry.

Terry Osborne is Brent’s borough solicitor and manages the borough’s legal and democratic services department. Osborne was appointed borough solicitor in September 2000 and, at the age of 32, she became one of the youngest heads of a local authority legal service in London. Yet Osborne is charmingly self-effacing about her achievements, even though she has been a driving force in developing the legal service resulting in the team being honoured at this year’s The Lawyer Awards.

When Osborne joined, her department had just 10 staff. “The council reviewed the legal services about 18 months before I arrived,” she explains. “They got Judith Barnes at Eversheds, former head of legal services at Greenwich, to review the provision of legal services within Brent Council. Her recommendation was that the council should internalise a lot of work. Much of the legal services were carried out by a variety of different firms, both from the City and local, and there were a number of lawyers devolved in a number of different departments.”

The Barnes review recommended a new structure so that this could be put in place, with a borough solicitor in charge and a number of principal lawyers heading up teams beneath. Osborne was brought in with this brief. She has since strengthened the management team and been on a recruitment
frenzy which is only just coming to an end.

“We recruited secretaries, a business manager, finance assistants, a social services lawyer, an education lawyer, an employment lawyer, a housing lawyer, contracts, planning, property… The past two years have been a big recruitment drive to get everyone in,” says Osborne.
In October 2002, Osborne took over member services, electoral registration and committee services, which were combined to make a new department of 65 people called legal and democratic services.

Osborne sits at the top of the organisation chart, followed by the democratic services manager, who manages the three units that merged with the legal team. There is also a business manager who deals with all administrative functions, and four principal lawyers who manage the four teams in legal services. The four teams are corporate, housing and litigation, environment and social services. The corporate team covers contracts, employment and education and the others are self-explanatory. Each team has about 10 staff.

Now that most of the recruitment and reorganisation is complete, the majority of work is handled in-house. This was not always the case. When Osborne started at Brent, about 70 per cent of legal work was outsourced. That figure has now dropped to about 5 per cent. Osborne does not have an official panel – when there is a large project which needs additional expertise, she conducts a beauty parade.
Nabarro Nathanson is advising the council on the NHS Lift (Local Improvement Finance Trusts) partnership project. . This will provide new primary care facilities such as health centres. The project also involves the Harrow and Hillingdon local authorities. Nabarros also advised on the revenues and benefits retendering exercise, which eventually transferred from EDS to Capita.

Field Fisher Waterhouse advised the council on the implementation of a managed telephony service, the implementation of a social services database and on intellectual property issues relating to the pathfinder housing scheme.

Pinsents is advising on the Willesden Leisure Centre PFI, and west London housing specialist Prince Evans has been instructed to advise the Brent Housing Partnership, which is an arm’s-length management organisation (Almo) – a separate company, limited by guarantee, that was set up to manage the council’s housing stock. “We set up a shadow board for the organisation and we appointed Prince Evans to act on behalf of the board,” explains Osborne.

Wembley Stadium provides the classic example of the in-house shift. In 1999, when plans to redevelop the stadium were first instigated, CMS Cameron McKenna was brought in to advise on the Section 106 planning agreement. But as more planning expertise was recruited, Camerons’ services were dispensed with.

As the project’s fortunes have waxed and waned, planning and environment solicitor Robert Vale has advised on changes to the Section 106 agreement, which deals with the infrastructure surrounding the stadium. Now, after the storm, the attention has turned to the development of the land surrounding the stadium. Vale will be kept busy for some time.

Even litigation (mostly housing – there is little general commercial litigation) is handled in-house, with the team directly instructing chambers. With 6,500 employees working for the council there was a huge number of employment tribunal cases. “But we now have two excellent employment lawyers who have worked extremely hard with our human resources team to review the council’s recruitment procedures to make them more robust and hopefully avoid future tribunal proceedings,” says Osborne.

The team also had to cope with the strain of the Climbie inquiry, which was launched to try to explain how a child known to social services could die after some of the most horrific abuse recorded in the UK. In January 2001, the murderers of Victoria Climbie were sentenced to life in prison. This sparked the first public inquiry into the death of a child. Most of the burden for the legal team fell on the shoulders of Akidi Ocan, the principal lawyer for social services.

Ocan has worked for more than ten years as a child protection lawyer in a number of local authorities and this was the largest and most public case she has had to deal with. “As a legal experience, it’s the only case of that type that I have had to deal with, and I hope it’s the last,” says Ocan.

On top of this, the team has had to implement a new constitution as part of the Government’s modernisation agenda. Having completely overhauled the department, modernisation is not a problem for the legal and democratic services team. Although there’s little chance of the modernisation affecting the ballroom dancers.
Terry Osborne
Borough solicitor and monitoring officer
London Borough of Brent

Organisation London Borough of Brent
Sector Public sector
Employees 6,500
Legal capability 48
Annual legal spend approximately £2.7m
Borough solicitor and monitoring officer Terry Osborne
Reporting to Deputy chief executive and director of corporate services Bernard Diamant
Main law firms Field Fisher Waterhouse, Nabarro Nathanson, Pinsents, Prince Evans
Main chambers used Rennaissance, 1 Kings Bench Walk, 14 Grays Inn Square, 11 Kings Bench Walk