Public sector legal services have seen a revolution recently. Francis Fernandes tells Kit Chellel how he’s steering Northampton Borough Council through the modernisation
It is fair to say that North-ampton, best known for its rugby team, churches and its history as a shoemaking town, is not always considered a hub for legal innovation.
But in terms of providing a snapshot of the recent revolution in public sector legal services, you need look no further than Northampton Borough Council.
Borough solicitor Francis Fernandes is facing the same pressures as thousands of other local government solicitors across the country.
Increased demand for services in areas such as childcare and housing combined with ever-shrinking budgets has led to rapid modernisation of the sector, with pioneers such as Kent County Council’s Geoff Wild and Birmingham’s Mirza Ahmed dragging local government law into the modern era.
For Fernandes and his team of seven lawyers, it is both an exciting and challenging time. “Local government in-house departments don’t have a right to provide the service any more,” he says. “It’s about value for money from the external panel – it doesn’t have to be the in-house team.”
Even within such a compact team, the drive for efficiency and modernisation is being felt. Fernandes has introduced time recording and a case management system since taking over the top legal post in 2005.
But he remains open to more dramatic measures, including merging with other local government legal teams in the region – as happened in Lincolnshire – and even a PPP with an external law firm.
Such an alliance could take the form of joint training initiatives or even farming out entire areas of work to external lawyers.
“Local authority lawyers are having to consider all the options in terms of providing a cost-effective service,” Fernandes reveals.
Northampton has also joined the EM LawShare group, a collection of councils and other public bodies that share training and undertake joint procurement to drive down fees.
The borough itself is also going through a period of change. In 2003, Northampton was selected by the Government as a ‘growth area’, which means up to 100,000 new homes will be built in the borough. It is currently the third-largest town without City status in England. The expansion programme would make Northampton comparable in size to the likes of Coventry and Leicester.
The scheme has also led to a number of regeneration projects, such as a plan to revamp the Grosvenor shopping centre in the heart of the town. The council called in Berwin Leighton Paisner partner Candice Blackwood to advise on the project.
Fernandes does not operate a formal panel, but divides his £180,000 external legal spend between preferred advisers, including Sharpe Pritchard and local firm Hewitsons.
Meanwhile, the council has been through an internal restructuring. In 2004 it was rated ‘poor’ by the Audit Commission, leading to the appointment of a new executive management team.
Fernandes claims the authority has since made significant strides. “Since then we have been on an extremely steep improvement line. The council is definitely improving,” he says, adding that the last assesment showed significant progress.
The authority has responded decisively to the recession, slashing £9m from its budget. For Fernandes, that resulted in some redundancies, with two paralegals losing their jobs.
But overall the council is in expansive mode. Fernandes has changed the internal structure of the legal function, abolishing the post of legal services manager and setting up two new divisional heads, for commercial property and litigation.
Now he needs to expand the legal team and is looking to recruit two senior lawyers in property and company commercial, as well as a trainee.
Recruitment is a perennial problem for the public sector, which has struggled to lure the best candidates away from lucrative contracts with private firms.
Fernandes says the credit crunch and squeeze on training contracts gives the council a chance to rectify that. Like many local government lawyers, he has spent his entire career in the public sector, training with Leicester City Council before moving to the London Borough of Hillingdon.
He can see no reason why other promising graduates cannot follow suit. “One of the problems with local government is that although the work is really exciting, it struggles to compete with the private sector in terms of salaries.
“Now that training contracts are hard to come by, we are trying to grow our own.”
Name: Francis Fernandes
Company: Northampton Borough Council
Position: Borough solicitor
Industry: Local authority
Reporting to: Chief executive David Kennedy
Annual legal spend: £180,000
Legal capacity: Seven
Main law firms: Berwin Leighton Paisner, Hewitsons, Sharpe Pritchard
2001: MBA, Warwick University Business School
1998: LLM, Leicester University
1989: College of Law, Lancaster Gate
1985-1988: LLB, University of Wales
1993-2001: Various roles culminating in senior lawyer role, Leicester City Council
2001-2005: Senior solicitor – planning, Hillingdon Borough Council
2005-present: Borough solicitor and monitoring officer, Northampton Borough Council