Holding council

Newham’s Gifty Edila was a one-council woman, that is until Kensington and Chelsea swept her off her feet with the offer of a new challenge. Jennifer Currie reports

Gifty Edila had just returned to the office after a holiday in St Lucia when she received a phone call. “I was being head-hunted,” the newly appointed director of law and administration at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea says.

“I used to get calls from different local authorities now and then, but none of them had ever seemed as exciting as what I was doing in Newham at the time. I was enthused by the vision Kensington and Chelsea offered me and as I was relaxed after my holiday, I was willing to go through the elaborate recruitment process.”

After spending 13 years in Newham Borough Council’s 90-strong legal team – five years as a senior solicitor and eight as its head – Edila was tempted away from London’s East End by the prospect of new challenges on the other side of the capital.

“The contrast between the two boroughs is less than people expect,” she says. “Newham used to be very old-fashioned. We used to say that we had to work under 16th century systems, it just wasn’t a modern borough. But things started to change when a new leader [Councillor Sir Robin Wales] was appointed in 1995. He aspired to make Newham one of the best-performing boroughs in London, if not the country.”

A year later, Dr Wendy Thomson, now head of the Office of Public Services Reform, joined Newham as chief executive and between them, Edila says they took a “very radical approach to modernising the borough”.

Type the word ‘award’ into the search engine on Newham Council’s webpage and you’ll soon see the results of this mid-1990s standards drive. Edila’s team scooped the Public Sector Team of the Year award at The Lawyer Awards in 1998, while the authority itself was named Council of the Year in 2000, in recognition of the vast improvements that had taken place across the board.

“It was a very demanding and exciting time,” says Edila. “We had to keep up with the changes and support them in terms of legal advice.”

Edila’s personal quest for a challenge can be traced back throughout her career. Called to the bar in 1979, she was a tenant at 4 Brick Court, the first chambers to be set up by a woman. “Our head of chambers was Lady Barbara Lowry (then Barbara Calvert), a wonderful woman who has been first at many other things since,” she says.

A year later, Edila left chambers to complete a masters degree in law at the University of London. She soon notched up a first of her own when she entered the ‘real world’ and joined the team of the UK’s only free legal advice centre, based in North Kensington. In 1985, she took up a similar in-house advocacy post at a legal advice centre in Camden, where she enjoyed three years of “huge job satisfaction”.

Edila says: “As a barrister in chambers your work comes from everywhere. You read up on a particular case, you do your history, then do the case and that is it. So I left the bar because my aspirations as a young, naïve, newly-qualified lawyer were to work in the community. I valued the fact that [as a community advocate] I could relate and appreciate all the background issues involved. The work I was doing at the advice centres was almost the same as I was doing in chambers, but it was more specific and more in tune with my own desires.”

Edila, who has since qualified as a solicitor, is happy in her new surroundings, but is still in the settling-in stage and spends much of her time in introductory meetings. “We call it the doctor’s surgery because of the long, long queue of people waiting to see me,” she says.

A review of the authority’s legal services is one of the first items on her to-do list, in line with the borough’s best value policy. Then there is the host of perennial features on the London agenda, such as congestion, planning – the borough has a high proportion of ‘blue plaque’ conservation areas – and the small matter of the Notting Hill Carnival.

The Kensington and Chelsea legal office is loosely split into three areas. One team of community lawyers advises the politicians and another staffs the borough’s free legal advice centre, while a third provides legal support for the borough’s mayor.

Edila works across all areas, providing managerial and some legal advice, although actual litigation is out of the question. “I really enjoyed court work and advocacy and so I had to have a serious think about whether I wanted to go over to the management side. I decided that if I wanted to progress in terms of my career I would have to prioritise the management side.”

Her evenings are occasionally taken up by council meetings, where she is obliged to be on hand to provide advice to issues on the borough’s agenda. “Local authorities are odd, because unlike you and me, they have to make sure that they can point to a particular law, to justify whatever they are doing. So if anything is ever proposed at council meetings then we need to be able to tell them if it is lawful. Authorities are really creatures of statute. It puts a huge demand on heads of legal.”

The majority of the authority’s legal work is carried out in-house, but this is another area Edila plans to develop. The borough has tended to use QCs, such as Christopher Lockhart-Mummery of 4 Breams Buildings, for bigger cases, while Bates Wells & Braithwaite has occasionally been instructed for charity work and Sharpe Pritchard for housing cases.

“We had quite an extensive ‘approved’ list at Newham and had a deliberate policy to put out at least 25 per cent of work. But here, most of it is done in-house or with barristers and that need not always be the case,” Edila says.

Edila may have swapped her barrister’s wig in order to climb up the career ladder, but she admits that she is still an advocate at heart. She says: “I still try to get involved in giving out legal advice and I have started speaking at conferences on subjects such as the Human Rights Act, just to replace being in court.”
Gifty Edila
Head of legal
The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

Organisation The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea
Sector Local Government
Employees 4000
Legal capability 38
Head of legal Gifty Edila
Reporting to Chief executive Derek Myers
Main location for lawyers London
Main law firms Bates Wells & Braithwaite and Sharpe Pritchard