HM Procurator General and Treasury Solicitor: Politically correct

Efficiency is the watchword for Treasury Solicitor Paul Jenkins, as he and his team keep their government clients on the legal straight and narrow

(l-r) Jenkins and Jones: time at the bar
(l-r) Jenkins and Jones: time at the bar

Paul Jenkins QC
Treasury Solicitor’s department

Title: HM Procurator General and Treasury Solicitor
Reporting to: Attorney General Dominic Grieve QC MP
Departmental income: £101.2m (2010-11)
Employees: 1,031
Annual legal spend: £5m
Legal capability: 650
Main external law firms: Extensive panel of solicitors’ firms plus individual barristers

If the Treasury Solicitor’s department (TSoL) were a law firm it would be one of the biggest in the country. TSoL employs around 1,000 people, including 650 lawyers and another 150 fee-earners.

When the whole of Government Legal Services (GLS) is taken into ­account those figures double to a workforce of around 2,000 people. In charge is Treasury Solicitor Paul Jenkins QC, supported by his deputy Jonathan Jones. Despite their titles, the duo are barristers by qualification – being a solicitor is not a prerequisite for the job.

Heavy load

TSoL handles around 30,000 disputes a year in-house, as well as managing those sent to outside counsel. It also gives non-contentious advice to government departments, although litigation accounts for just over half its workload.

Jenkins is chief executive of TSoL as well as the head of GLS, and has been in the role for five years. That time has seen the UK go from boom to bust and, like the rest of the profession, TSoL has had to adjust to maximise what it does in the climate it now works in.

“The headline strategy we’ve been pursuing for the past five years is to make this place much more ­businesslike, without undermining the public service values involved in being an organisation of civil ­servants,” Jenkins says.

The challenge has been to balance that objective with the fact that TSoL cannot make a profit or a loss. Unlike a private practice firm the aim is not to maximise fee income, but to run “the best and most efficient service” possible.

One of the main ways of doing this has been to look at the way TSoL works with outside counsel. The department runs two panels of external solicitors and four of barristers, supporting it on a range of work such as personal injury claims handling. Claims are generated by government departments and services, with the Ministry of Defence and HM Prison Service highlighted by Jenkins as the sources of a high volume of cases.

“I took the view quite early that, for example, claims handlers could probably deliver a more cost-efficient service when handling personal ­injury claims than us,” Jenkins says.

“The routine, basic claims we think can be done more efficiently and economically in the private ­sector,” Jones adds.

TSoL is reviewing the status of its two external law firm panels – ‘Lit-Cat’, focusing on litigation, and the so-called ‘Catalist’ panel which is ­appointed through the Government’s legal services framework agreement. In the search for efficiency there is a proposal to merge the panels, which have an overlap of just nine firms.

Fees freeze

Fees paid to external lawyers have been squeezed for some time, with Jones noting that fees for the barristers’ panels have not changed since the late 1990s.

“We do squeeze the bar, and get good value,” he admits.

But fees for work done by TSoL for government clients are also being squeezed as a consequence of the public spending cuts. Jenkins says the recession and its impact led TSoL to cut fees by 5 per cent and commit to holding them at this level for four years. The move came after a previous four-year period of frozen fees.

“My clients are facing cuts to their budgets,” he says. “It would be irresponsible for their legal adviser to say, ‘Tough, we’re just going to carry on making you pay the costs’.”

The department has had to find ways of working more efficiently. Jones and Jenkins describe a system put in place for the Borders Agency to handle immigration cases. Cases are classed as gold, silver or bronze and managed accordingly. For example, standard form acknowledgement of services can be issued for bronze cases where a common argument may arise, cutting the time and cost of dealing with issues.

TSoL has also implemented a new case management system. Jenkins admits the investment is late in coming compared with the private sector, but again says the reason is down to a past perception of TSoL as part of the Civil Service rather than a business.

However, there are some advantages to being in the Civil Service. Jenkins, who is also the Civil Service diversity champion, is proud of TSoL’s ability to retain women right through their careers. Almost half – 46 per cent – of those employed by GLS at the Civil Service level roughly equivalent to partner are women.

Jenkins puts the success down to GLS’s ability to offer flexible working arrangements. A fifth of Government lawyers work through job-shares and 19 per cent work part-time.

“One of the things we’ve changed in the past five years is to get an understanding with a client that you can litigate on a job-share,” he says. “This means we can recruit some of the brightest and best people from the City.”

Jenkins and Jones point to the variety of work as one reason that well-paid City lawyers will take a sizeable salary cut to move to TSoL, as well as the chance to advise on more purely legal issues and have meaningful input into policymaking or work closely with ministers.

Even at management level, the Treasury Solicitor and his deputy get to get their hands dirty, working on matters as diverse as the ’cash for ­honours’ inquiry, claims against the armed forces in Iraq and Afghan­istan, and a significant chunk of ­current Supreme Court cases.

“The more diverse work we have here, the better,” says Jenkins, adding that TSoL’s strapline, ’Law
at the heart of Government’, is an ­accurate reflection of what the ­department does.

“Unusually for a strapline, it does say it all,” he concludes.

Paul Evans
Head of legal services, Merton and Richmond Borough Councils

Evans was appointed joint head of legal for the merged legal department of the two London boroughs in September 2011.

“The Merton and Richmond model is based on cost-efficiencies and economies of scale,” says Evans. “As soon as you start sharing accommodation, IT and so on it gives you flexibility in taking 10 to 20 per cent off overheads. This comes through easily and doesn’t have the impact on the team that it would usually have.

“And the specialisms you have across 45 people rather than 25 gives a much better offer.

“You may think councils are all the same, but they’re not. It’s quite a new thing to supply services to organisations with different political persuasions.

“[Merton is Labour-controlled, Richmond Conservative.] Traditional local government lawyers have to move quite a way
to step into the shoes of frontline services and develop what they want.

“We’re now looking at how we sell our services more effectively – there’s more emphasis on that. There’s no benefit to me or my management team in delivering a whacking great profit. It’s the way forward – it’s unsustainable to make 25 per cent savings without doing this because it doesn’t impact on people so much and it’s the people we need. In some ways, the future is in our hands.”

John Wynn
Assistant director of legal services, Birmingham City Council

Legal Services Birmingham has been pitching for external public sector contracts for some time and recently won a place on an NHS panel.

“The tendering side is still quite dynamic for us,” explains Wynn. “We’re working to turn the NHS potential into real work, so we’re out and about greeting people. It’s been a challenge in an organisation that’s a public sector organisation to get everyone in the right mindset to operate commercially. We’re fortunate in Birmingham that probably a third of our staff here have been in the private sector for good chunks of their working lives, and are quite commercial. To date we’ve had huge amounts of enthusiasm among our staff to do this. The next 12 months are in my mind critical to see that potential turn into delivery.

“I think that generally if you look across the public sector lots of people are talking about doing income generation, but I’m not sure how many people are actually doing it.

“People are saying, ’How have you got as far as you have as fast as you have?’. We’ve been flexible in how we do this process. You can’t just staff up – you have to staff in anticipation of a certain level of work and then recruit as you go along.We’re the right critical mass; being big helps us here.”