When Meic Sullivan-Gould joined the legal services department at the London Borough of Hackney three years ago, things were not good. The council had suffered years of neglect, during which time there was a large amount of overspend. The region had suffered riots and the media was full of negative stories about the borough.
Within the legal department, things were not much better. “We needed to resuscitate the legal team, the payment for practising certificates had been removed and morale was on the floor,” says Sullivan-Gould.
In 2002 a practising certificate would have cost £700, which is not an easy amount of money to find when working as a lawyer at a London borough council.
The department was also dealing with 690 employment tribunal cases in 2002 and had a reputation for not paying its legal bills on time.
Thankfully, according to Sullivan-Gould, things have turned around, with the borough bringing in decent managers and making a conscious effort to invest in its staff and surroundings.
Sullivan-Gould still describes Hackney as a “very challenging environment”. Between 20 and 30 per cent of the borough’s population changes every year, there is considerable deprivation and a huge range of communities. But Sullivan-Gould and his team have responded positively to the challenge. “We make sure we recruit from all the communities, so we cater for all the languages,” he says.
He also says that council workers are now far more upbeat than when he started and that it is an exciting time to be in the legal department at Hackney.
And it does not get much more exciting than the Olympics. Hackney is one of the London boroughs that will be home to an Olympic venue in 2012. The velodrome will sit in South East Hackney, but Sullivan-Gould says it was a close-run thing and that, as late as August 2004, planning permission had still to be granted.
“There were five boroughs that needed to give planning permission if the bid was to go ahead, so together with the others we created a mechanism whereby all five planning committees held the hearings in the same place at the same time,” he says. The other four boroughs were Newham, Waltham Forest, Tower Hamlets and Greenwich.
Sullivan-Gould says the council encourages this type of innovation across all its projects. As an example, he cites the work carried out by Hackney as part of the ‘Decent Homes’ initiative. The council has succeeded in getting more than 150 people out of unemployment by finding them work as part of the initiative’s construction team.
Closer to home, the legal department is about to launch its first barristers panel. Although the creation of a legal panel is not new, the criteria Hackney will impose on the potential chambers are new and unusual. As first reported in The Lawyer (31 October), any chambers which decides to pitch for a panel place will have to show that it has a sound equal opportunities policy. The barristers panel follows the formation of an eight-strong solicitors panel in 2003, which is divided into different practice areas such as employment, planning and criminal litigation.
Sullivan-Gould and his staff – which includes 40 lawyers – are also involved in the borough’s plans to improve the condition of social housing through the transfer of council stocks to housing associations. And, alongside the registrars service, the legal department has been preparing for the new civil partnerships law. The new law, which comes into effect next month, gives same-sex couples the right to marry. “We already have a waiting list,” says Sullivan-Gould.
He has been in local government throughout his professional life. “I got into local government by accident, but have stayed by choice,” he explains. He trained at Leicester City Council – a period he describes as consisting of “being up before Leicester magistrates’ court prosecuting street traders”. He then moved down to Devon, where he focused on child protection cases. After around three years, Sullivan-Gould thought he would try his hand at managing lawyers and enjoyed spells at Winchester City Council followed by Basingstoke & Deane Borough Council, before finally moving to Hackney.
In spite of the improvements, Sullivan-Gould realises that the borough still has a long way to go, but he remains upbeat about the prospects. “We still have loads to do to make our services world-leading,” he says, “but we’re definitely on the right track.”
Deputy director, law and democratic services
London Borough of Hackney
|Organisation||London Borough of Hackney|
|Number of lawyers||40|
|Deputy director, law and democratic services||Meic Sullivan-Gould|
|Reporting to||Chief executive Penny Thompson|
|Main law firms||Bircham Dyson Bell, DMH Stallard, Nabarro Nathanson, Devereux Chambers, 11 King’s Bench Walk and Renaissance Chambers|