London’s Barnet and Harrow councils to save £4.4m via legal services merger

The London Boroughs of Barnet and Harrow have agreed to merge their legal services in a move that is expected to save them an estimated £4.4m over the next five years.

Hugh Peart
Hugh Peart

Barnet’s legal team will be based in Harrow from July following approval from the authorities’ respective cabinets last night as part of a wider push to slash costs and increase in-house legal expertise.

The shared legal service will eventually see staff take on work for both councils, with savings aimed at cutting costs on external lawyers, law libraries and office space.

“The costs of running different cases varies widely between authorities, so joining with another council is a great way of learning the best, most cost effective way of dealing with things,” said Harrow’s director of legal and governance services, Hugh Peart. “Once we understand how everyone works, we’ll work as one team – it’s the best of both worlds.”

Banding together has proved popular with council legal teams following the biggest public sector cutbacks in a generation. Last year the London Boroughs of Merton and Richmond upon Thames merged 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).

Similarly, the London Boroughs Legal Alliance (LBLA), whose members jointly procure legal advice, has continued to expand since growing from five to 10 members in its first year (25 October 2010), with Ealing and Waltham Forest the latest authorities to join.

“Following the public sector cuts, our best option was to reduce the costs per hour of legal support by increasing the size of the legal team,” added Peart, saying that redundancies were not in the pipeline for either team as a result of the Barnet-Harrow merger. “There are no more overheads for a group of 60 than there is for a group of 30 when it comes to case management systems, training programmes or law libraries.”

Harrow Council has put forward a number of initiatives to eliminate legal costs in the last year, including cutting out the cost burden of dealing with Freedom of Information (FOI) Act requests by publishing all potential FOI information on the council’s website (7 February 2011).

Peart has not ruled out the possibility of mirroring Kent County Council by selling legal services in the future. “It’s not a one year plan, but certainly something to consider when the practice is running,” he said.

Jessica Farmer, head of legal services at Harrow council, will manage the day-to-day running of the shared legal team. Peart will continue in his current role, overseeing the combined legal function.

Barnet’s legal head Margaret Martinus has recently left the authority. A spokesperson said: “This was an amicably agreed departure in connection with the establishment of a shared service.”