In-house lawyers beat private practices in tendering battle

The first set of Compulsory Competitive Tendering contracts for legal services has been described by local government lawyers as “a tribute to the quality and cost efficiency of local authority legal departments”.

CCT for local government legal services started last week. None of the contracts tendered by London boroughs and metropolitan councils were awarded to private practices. The contracts include at least 45 per cent of the work of the legal department for a five-year period starting 1 April.

Speaking at the annual weekend school for local government lawyers, members of London borough and metropolitan council legal teams said that the costs of CCT far outweighed the benefits.

“CCT has forced us to put in quality matters and has proved that the public sector is far in excess of private practice,” said London Borough of Hillingdon solicitor Frazine Johnson. “But it has wasted a lot of time and caused much angst.”

Alan Short, controller of legal services at the London Borough of Bexley, said the CCT process has added unnecessary administration costs to council budgets. “The contracting out of services will also divert staff from sharing a common purpose with colleagues from other departments with whom they have previously worked.”

Solicitors from the metropolitan borough councils held similar views to those of the London boroughs. Miranda Carruthers-Watt, principal solicitor at Blackburn Borough Council, was involved in carrying out CCT in her former post in Bradford. She said: “It was interesting to see that local government can take on the private sector. I don't think the private sector thought that local government lawyers were experts within their field.”

She said public sector legal departments proved themselves not only in their quality of service and cost efficiency but also in effective management systems. She agreed that the costs of CCT far outweighed the benefits.

Local authority lawyers have noticed the lack of private practice presence. Short said: “The new system clearly has not worked for private practice. Firms need to decide whether local government is a market they want to be in and whether it is profitable enough for them.

“It is the smaller less specialist firms which need the work but they cannot compete with the price or the specialisation of the public sector. Private practice cannot be expected to deal with sensitive areas such as child care.”

David Taylor, head of the public sector law group at Berwin Leighton, said: “The way that it has panned out is that local government packages aren't suited to big City firms. They aren't interested in the work or the rates. The one-off individual contracts are the preferred way of being involved with local government.”

The Department of Environment is investigating 80 councils over CCT procedure.