The lie of the land

The UK farming industry has had a tough time of it. Kathryn Hobbs talks to NFU head of legal Colin Hall about helping his members cope with the Government

With 80 cows, 350 ewes and a legal team of over 20, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) head of legal Colin Hall has a lot to manage. Of course, the cows and sheep generally steer clear of the office and the legal team tends not to be first in line for a 5am milking.

Hall’s existence as both farmer and lawyer has found a natural in-house home at the NFU. “I’ve always lived on a farm. I have a practical outlook and, as such, felt that here I could best employ my interest in agriculture at a technical level with my skills as a lawyer,” he explains.

Hall was a rather accidental recruit to the NFU. Seconded from Cripps Harries Hall at just a year and a half-qualified, he soon found himself enjoying the variety and pace of the work at the union. Stuck in a residential property rut, Hall quickly realised that the contrast between the NFU and private practice was significant enough to prompt a full-time in-house move.

Having served his time as a foot soldier in the Hampshire regional office, Hall moved to the London headquarters, where he was promoted to head of legal, a position vacated by Richard Vidal. Hall’s meteoric rise has taken less than four years.

His farming background has proved a useful companion to his legal skills in dealing with union members. “I noticed very quickly that it was a tremendous advantage when speaking to farmers about how the law will affect their businesses,” he says. His credibility within a notoriously close-knit farming fraternity was immediately increased by his history.

Hall’s understanding of the business environment in which farmers operate has led to some interesting commercial departures for the NFU. The in-house team, therefore, is not simply reactive, although given the frequency with which difficulties have beset the industry recently, Hall and his team could be forgiven for operating only on a day-to-day basis.

His London team was instrumental in setting up and promoting the British Farm Standard. This separate company is effectively a means by which farmers can comply with certain criteria, thereby guaranteeing consistent quality across the board in a way that the public can easily understand. Hall says: “The NFU does so much that it’s not always able to get the message out.” It was this need for a strong discernible statement about the strengths of the industry that prompted the marketing initiative.

Prior to its inception, disparate assurance schemes for all areas of farm produce – such as beef, pork and cereals – operated independently of one another. Farmers spent so long meeting different conditions for each area of their businesses that even after complying with all the regulations, they did not necessarily gain any competitive advantage over those who had not put in a similar effort. Hall describes it as “a classic example of what the NFU does to bring everything together, and it’s also a big enough message so that the public can pick it up”.

For the legal team, it necessitated creating and protecting the new ‘little red tractor’ trademark in addition to the work in establishing the company – work that Hall notes crosses the legal, political and practical spectrum that he associates with the NFU.

Hall is acutely aware of the very public nature of his organisation. “All the advice we give to our office holders here has a political implication,” he says. The office holders Hall is referring to are the NFU directors and the democratically elected vice-president and president. The political emphasis of Hall’s role cannot be overemphasised. His predecessor Vidal left the NFU for a position on the other side of the fence at the newly-established Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

The NFU structure reiterates the political aspects of the legal team’s role. Reporting to the director of policy, Hall has played an integral part in the NFU’s struggle to devise solutions to enduring problems in the farming industry.

Representing a community decimated by a series of well-publicised problems – including BSE and the Foot-and-Mouth crisis – the NFU has had an extremely difficult few years. Concern about the impact of Foot-and-Mouth is rife. For the regional offices and the NFU call centre, it means answering daily queries about changing regulations and compensation.

The Foot-and-Mouth story may not be so prevalent in the news now, but its effects continue to debilitate the rural community. One step removed from direct contact with members, the London legal team is looking into the legality of the contiguous cull, accusations of operational negligence by Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) operatives and the way in which the Government’s compensation plan is to be deployed – large issues for a small team.

A small team it may be, but its breadth of knowledge never fails to impress Hall. The legal team in London consists of five lawyers. One was originally a legal researcher for the NFU before completing her training as a solicitor. “Given the variety of work that we cover, retention is vital,” says Hall. “The only way you can do this job is if you know how to find information.” Spoon-feeding is not an option and Hall values the array of knowledge combined in his team.
Hall emphasises the in-house relationship with external advisers. The NFU was able to offer a training contract, which was partly due to the assistance of one of its regional firms, Morgan Cole. The benefits of strong ties with private practice also flow in a reverse direction. The NFU legal team regularly takes trainees on secondment to offer them the chance to muck in and gain an in-house

According to Hall, private practice experience is vital for an in-house lawyer. A strong grounding in self-discipline, thinking methodically and developing professional confidence are all key factors that Hall believes are gleaned by working for a law firm. His reshuffle of the in-house hierarchy, too, reflects the influence of private practice. Incremental promotions and a system whereby careers can be seen to have progressed have replaced the traditional flat structure where all lawyers report to one head of legal.

Aside from the internal restructuring, Hall has far-reaching ambitions for his team and the lawyers servicing the call centre in Uppingham. Set up nearly two years ago, the call centre provides a frontline response to both general and more specific member queries. It is a dynamic environment where most questions are answered in one call. Particularly complex enquiries can be referred to the panel firm with responsibility for that region.

The call centre has alleviated some of the pressure on the London and regional in-house teams, and members benefit from a simplified system designed to meet their needs. Hall’s London team has to ensure that the information available to the call centre is up-to-date. One of his priorities is to work out a formal system for verifying and auditing the information accessible by the call centre staff.

Hall is philosophical about the continued problems affecting NFU members. He concedes that the UK’s farming industry has tough times ahead, but that the NFU is there to support it throughout change. The number of employees in agriculture has shrunk significantly in recent years. It is increasingly difficult to generate a profit from farming and NFU membership is on the decline.

Hall argues that, under these circumstances, the role of the NFU has never been more important. His team has a delicate political balance to maintain between working with the Government and with NFU members. Passions run high and Hall’s pragmatism will be tested to the full. For the moment, though, Hall remains confident. “At the end of the day, when I go home,” he says, “I actually feel like I’ve achieved something.”
Colin Hall
Head of legal
National Farmers’ Union (NFU)

Organisation National Famers’ Union (NFU)
Sector Agriculture
Employees Approximately 250
Legal Capability Five lawyers in London, five in the regions and 12 at NFU services
Head of legal Colin Hall
Reporting to Director of policy, Ian Gardiner
Main location for lawyers Southampton
Main law firms Bond Pearce, Brachers, Craven, Jacksons, Knight & Sons, Morgan Cole, Napthen Houghton, Roythorne & Co, Prettys and Thring Townsend