Calling for change

Sebastian Farr has been both a barrister and a solicitor, and as head of legal at Oftel he is looking forward to more change as the sector consolidates. Eleanor Levenson reports

As a barrister the first time round, Farr’s big thing was European anti-dumping and competition law work. In 1985 he went to the Brussels chambers of Jeremy Lever QC, while simultaneously founding (with Clare Tritton QC) a specialist European Law chambers at 2 King’s Bench Walk (North). The firm that managed to lure him away was Simmons & Simmons, appointing him to run its EU law practice in Brussels. Ten years later, after time in both the Brussels and London offices, Farr became a barrister again and joined Oftel, where he is now head of legal profession.

“I wanted to move in-house and more particularly join Oftel because it’s an incredibly dynamic and high profile organisation. The telecommunications industry is at the forefront because it’s the industry that all other industries and services are based on and you are right in the centre of development in the legislative regime which governs telecoms.”

Farr’s job at Oftel makes him a member of the Government Legal Service. This gives him a civil service role at the heart of telecommunications policy, sitting on the Oftel operations board that provides a strategic framework for Oftel’s work. “I also have to liaise with the legal departments of other UK regulators and the international regulators in the other member states and I sit on the Government Legal Service Committee of heads of legal of government departments.”

Despite being on all these committees and being responsible for the professional development of his team, Farr still manages to do his fair share of legal work. This covers several areas, including telecoms and broadcasting, EU and UK competition law, consumer law, administrative law, the enforcement of telecommunications licences and judicial review.

Oftel’s current big issues are two new pieces of legislation. One is the proposed new EU framework for telecommunications legislation that is currently going through the European Parliament and is expected to come into force in early 2003. The other is the Communications Bill, which will establish a new Office of Communications (Ofcom) as a regulatory body for the telecommunications and broadcasting sector, as outlined in the December 2000 Government White Paper, ‘A New Future for Communications’.

Oftel is one of the five organisations that will merge to form Ofcom. The others are the Radiocommunications Agency, the Radio Authority, the Independent Television Commission and the Broadcasting Standards Commission.

Farr thinks that the size of this new body means that even though Oftel will no longer exist, the expertise of its legal team will still be needed. “The structure of the organisation will depend on how it is laid out in the Communications Bill but there will be a big need for a strong legal department,” he says. “There is going to have to be effectively a full service in-house law firm.”

Another hot topic for the legal department is local loop unbundling. This has led to Oftel instructing solicitors for the first time. So far only two firms have been used; Theodore Goddard for work involving telecoms-related law and property law and Fox Williams for employment law issues. At Theodore Goddard, Farr works most closely with partenrs Edward Pitt and Robert McNally and, at Fox Williams, Jane Mann.

Both firms are expected to tender for a place on the new panel of preferred law firms that Farr is setting up. “It’s always useful to have a panel because it gives choice. There are lots of enormously good law firms whose expertise we may chose to tap from time to time.” Although only two firms have been used so far, Farr thinks there will be much interest in the panel. “We know the sorts of firms who are likely to be interested,” he says. He is expecting that five firms will be chosen.

Competition Act investigations, the restructuring of BT and competition in the mobile phone market also occupy space in Farr’s mind. “The industry is moving so fast that we have to ensure we are able to anticipate development,” he says.

To ensure that his team can handle all this, Oftel has spent the last couple of years recruiting its current team from a wide range of backgrounds. A number qualified overseas. “My job is to see that Oftel gets the best possible legal advice and that my team is able to develop their skills. The work is of a high character and profile and junior lawyers in the team have a great deal of responsibility, more than they would do in private practice,” says Farr.

He says: “Oftel has a clear goal: to ensure that consumers get the best possible deal. Within this my main goal is to ensure that the director general and the organisation have the best possible legal representation in-house”.

Edward Pitt at Theodore Goddard used to work at Oftel as a senior legal adviser. He was particularly involved with licence enforcement and the control of anti-competitive practices by licensed telecoms operators. He compliments Farr for being a very able competition and administrative law lawyer. “He was at the bar and is very good at thinking on his feet in a meeting,” says Pitt.

The changes in his sector do not seem to faze Farr. He is confident that there will be a role for him in the new regulatory body. He is obviously not afraid of change, and with experience as a barrister, a solicitor and head of an in-house team, any lawyer who crosses his path should be aware that he knows the tricks of all the trades.
Sebastian Farr
Head of legal
Office of Telecommunications (Oftel)

Organisation Office of Telecommunications (Oftel)
Sector Telecommunictions
Employees 200
Legal Capability 9 lawyers
Head of legal services Sebastian Farr
Reporting to Chris Kenny, director of regulatory policy
Location London
Main law firms Theodore Goddard and Fox Williams