Public sector lawyers hit by spending cuts in Newcastle, Bristol, Manchester

Bristol, Manchester and Newcastle City Councils have published their proposed budgets for 2013/14, exposing further cuts on spending for government legal departments.

According to budget proposals the legal department at Labour-run Newcastle City Council, which faces £100m of cuts over the next three years, must find ways of cutting costs by an estimated £50,000 this year, £117,000 next year and £230,000 in 2016.

“Legal staff will work more closely with managers in service areas to provide more value adding support, advice and guidance allowing for a more targeted and effective use of limited legal resources,” the proposal states.

The council has argued that the poorest and most deprived parts of the country are the worst affected by Government cuts, with council leader Nick Forbes calling for the setting up of a new body to oversee funding to councils. “There is no escape from the fact that the government’s deep, damaging and unfair spending cuts will have a dramatic impact on our council and the services we provide to local people,” he said in a statement.

Manchester City Council has also published its proposed budget for 2013/14, setting out how it will address a £40m funding shortfall in the year ahead. Savings of almost £15m have been identified for Manchester’s Corporate Core department, which includes the council’s legal department, while a proposal seen by Local Government Lawyer has reportedly called for £300,000 to be delivered by the department between 2013 and 2015.

Meanwhile the legal department at Bristol City Council, which had a net budget of £6.37m in 2012/13, will need to find savings of around £230,000 this year as the budget calls for a “decreased spend on external legal support.”

In December last year, Bristol’s legal head Stephen McNamara left to join Veale Wasbrough Vizards (5 December 2012) as a consultant in its public sector department, an appointment that followed that of Bristol City Council in-house legal adviser Edward Reynolds in July (23 July 2012). The council is expected to reduce its spending by £65m over the next three years.

“The spending cuts won’t automatically equal job losses, it’s more about how to generate more income,” one source told The Lawyer. “The councils will all be facing a series of hard questions – this is a characteristic across the whole public sector.”

One solution to the spending cuts – the biggest public sector cutbacks in a generation – has been to merge legal departments between councils. Last year saw the tie-up of the London boroughs of Barnet and Harrow, creating a shared service that is expected to save the councils an estimated £4.4m on external lawyers, law libraries and office space in the next five years (21 August 2012).

The previous year saw the London boroughs of Merton and Richmond upon Thames merge their legal departments in a bid to slash legal costs by 20 per cent (28 February 2011) while the councils of Hammersmith & Fulham and Kensington & Chelsea integrated their legal departments after abandoning plans for a three-way combination with Westminster City Council (23 May 2011).