Issue - decisions

Review of Legal and Committee Services

01/11/2011 - Review of Legal and Committee Services

A report by the Director of Law, HR and Asset Management provided an initial review of the capability and capacity of the Council’s Legal and Committee Services teams and requested the Committee to provide a steer on how to progress the review by determining an appropriate way forward.  The review picked up one of the specific lines of enquiry identified by AKA in the Corporate Governance Report and was part of Work Stream 4: “Undertake a Series of ‘System Stress Tests’ Across the Council”.  The report set out the current position and the challenges which faced the teams.  The Director also informed that he would be presenting a further report to the Committee at a future meeting setting out options to address these challenges.


The Director reported that new and evolving areas of law had become increasingly relevant to the work of a local authority and listed examples.  In addition, other legislative changes had affected specific service areas and had added to the demand for support from Legal Services.  These additional demands had accumulated over the years and the existing lawyers had responded and taken on new areas of responsibility.  This had placed increasing demands upon these individuals in question (and often resulted in a long hours culture); and meant that new and complex areas of legislation were being dealt with by lawyers who specialised in other areas of law.  This was a risk to the authority.  The result, not surprisingly, was that that the most common complaint about the legal service was that of delay because of the sheer volume of work.


Consequently, Legal Services had become almost exclusively reactive rather than proactive.  This too was a risk to the authority.  Investment was required to establish a fit for purpose Legal Service, as additional lawyers were needed, with relevant specialist knowledge of local authority law.


To address the issues the Director had identified and mitigate risks he made two recommendations: That


  (1)  the proposed bringing together of the Planning and Environment and Property functions should proceed.


(2)  a new Corporate Governance team be created within Legal Services.  This team would focus on the following areas of work:


·  Procurement and Commissioning (including contract disputes and, where

appropriate, termination)

·  Freedom of Information; Environmental Information Regulations; and

Data Protection

·  Equalities and Human Rights

·  Whistleblowing and Complaints

·  Standards and Ethical Governance

·  Supporting the democratic process (providing legal advice on

Committee/Cabinet reports)


The report also set out the tasks that the Committee Services team currently performed and identified the following factors that meant that it was being put it under increasing pressure:


  • Since 2008 Committee Services has been reduced by five F/T posts: 2

PO4, 1 Band H and 2 Band G posts.

  • Increase in the number of scrutiny call-ins which mean convening Special

meetings of Overview and Scrutiny Committees.

  • At least 1 agenda and 1 Supplement are prepared by Committee Services for every Council meeting.
  • The Cabinet meets every 3 weeks and Committee Services prepares at least 2 agendas each time (1 for the briefing and 1 for the meeting itself).
  • An increase in the number of Ombudsman enquiries in respect of School Appeals which are very time consuming.
  • The number of committee reports submitted late, (after the agenda for the meeting has been published) has increased so consequently, there has been an increase in the number of supplementary agendas produced.
  • Progress chasing on actions to be taken by officers agreed at meetings.
  • Administering and Updating the Executive Team’s Forward Plan of Cabinet Reports.


The Committee was informed that whilst recruitment to the two vacant posts would help alleviate some pressures, it would not adequately address all issues or allow for emerging future demands on the service.  Additional demands would be placed on Committee Services as a result of the following:


  • Administration of the All Party Working Group to be established to propose the most appropriate form of the Council including the possible return to the committee system, once the Localism Bill in enacted.
  • New Cabinet Committees –

  - Safeguarding Reference Group (meets 4 times a year)

  - Corporate Governance Committee (expected to meet every 3 weeks).

  • The Members’ Remuneration Panel is due to meet in 2012 to review the Scheme of Members’ Allowances. The possible return to the committee system has implications in respect of this.


The Director also reported on an area emerging from the Corporate Governance Report the need to improve the quality of reports and ensure decisions were implemented and the work that this involved.


The report set out some opportunities for addressing the pressures faced by Committee Services as follows:


  • The system could be more fully exploited by

-  introducing a new report template to allow information to be pulled through into Minutes, so saving some time.

-  Preparation of all committee reports within the system, using the internet, rather than importing word documents as we do now. Reports prepared in this way can automatically be circulated for comments and clearance. This will also mean that they can not be submitted late, as they will automatically go forward to the next scheduled meeting. This proposal has cost implications as will need to be commissioned to provide support and training before this initiative can be rolled out to Personal Assistants and Report Authors across the Council.

-  Follow up actions to be taken following meetings using the system. This facility needs to be made more customer friendly. It would assist if an officer (Champion) is nominated from within each Department or Service to be responsible for progress chasing and ensuring actions are taken.


  • The School Administration System is out dated and no longer fit for purpose. It is not compatible with the system used in the Schools Section which means officers from both sections have to input the same data into two different systems. There is a cost associated with addressing this.

·  Make more use of the web library and so reduce the size of agendas.

  • Move to electronic Agendas and Reports which would require investment in IT but deliver savings (and Carbon Budget benefits) in the longer term.


The Committee considered the report in detail.  It was aware that the, soon to be held, Members’ Seminar on the Corporate Governance Report may also identify action to be taken to assist Legal and Committee Services.  Members requested the Director to separate the information contained in his report into two parts as a basis for a further report to the Committee.  The information supplied could then:


  • form a bid against the Committee’s budget for the resources he requires in respect of Work Stream 4; and


  • form a bid against the Council’s 2012/13 budget for resources to assist a wider departmental restructuring.


In the meantime, the Deputy Chief Executive/Director of Finance was requested to investigate what options there were available to the Council to address the challenges the Director of Law, HR and Asset Management had identified and report back to the Committee with his findings and options




(1)  the Director of Law, HR and Asset Management be requested to bring a further report to the next meeting of the Committee detailing his future requirements as set out above; and


(2)  the Deputy Chief Executive/Director of Finance be requested to consider the options available for addressing the challenges facing Legal and Committee Services, including identifying any best practice of other local authorities who have gone through similar processes and report back to the Committee.