WORKING WITH YOUR LEGAL TEAM

One of the key areas of support that I offer to my clients is helping them to review their ASB services. Inevitably, this includes a conversation about the legal support that they are receiving. There is an understandable desire to want to ensure that they are getting the best service at the best price from the legal teams that they are working with.

The following contains some basic information that I often share with clients and I hope that you may find useful too.

External legal support

If a client tells me that they are looking for external legal support then my first piece of advice is always to ensure that they are using a specialist solicitor. There are so many different areas of law that someone can practice in; just because someone is a qualified solicitor does not mean that they therefore know about every area of law. It may be the case that a specialist solicitor is more expensive than a generic high street firm. I always encourage clients to think behind the black and white figures on the paper; whilst the hourly rate may appear much better value you need to take into account that the overall cost may be higher because a specialist may be able to handle the issue quicker or get a better outcome in Court.

When you do engage an external solicitor you should also consider the fee arrangements that you have with them. The standard approach is usually an hourly rate. In reality, a solicitor will charge in units of time, with each unit being 6 minutes. The time is takes to undertake a task will generally be rounded up, meaning that a 3 minute email will be recorded as one 6 minute unit.

If you are adopting this approach it is therefore key that the case officer works efficiently to ensure that the bills don’t increase unnecessarily. Examples of how costs can be controlled include:

• Trying to avoid contacting the solicitor about questions that others could answer (such as the officer’s manager), or waiting until there is a number of queries that can be asked at the same time, rather than individually. For example, 4 queries asked separately will cost a minimum of 24 minutes (4 x 1 unit of 6 minutes), whereas asked in one call could take much less time,
• Ensuring that the case file that is referred to legal is complete and high-quality, particularly in relation to the witness statements. Much cost is incurred where standards are low and the solicitor has to make a number of corrections or send back a number of queries.
• Thinking about things that the case officer can undertake which saves the amount of time a solicitor spends on the case. Examples include: completing exhibits sheets and back-sheets for witness statements, redacting the exhibits to remove telephone numbers and other personal information, preparing maps for exclusion zones etc.

An alternative is to negotiate a fixed fee price structure. This will mean that the solicitor gives you a fixed cost for certain actions. The benefit of this approach is that you know exactly how much the case is going to cost you and can therefore plan your budget and forecast more effectively. A few things that are important to consider:

• Make sure you know exactly what costs are included: most fixed fees will not include additional costs such as travel expenses etc.
• Make sure you know exactly what service is included: some fixed fees will include managing a case up to certain point, or will stipulate that it covers a certain amount of hearings only. It is important you understand the scenarios when a case many cost more than the initial fixed rate.

Some legal firms will also provide added value services. This can include provision of free telephone support up to a certain amount of time or attending your offices to deliver surgery sessions or briefings. Make sure you check out what is included and take advantage of these to help develop the knowledge of your officers.

Internal legal support

Some organisations, particularly local authorities, will use internal legal teams. The funding arrangements for internal teams will differ between Councils; some will pay the legal team a hourly rate, some will have a percentage of their budget top sliced and given to the legal team.

Using an internal legal team can provide some challenges. Internal legal teams are often expected to provide a service to all departments within a Council, thus creating some real capacity issues. This can mean that dealing with urgent matters, such as without notice injunctions, can be difficult to do within the required timescales.

There are some things that case officers can do to assist legal teams that are strained:

• Ensure that the legal cases they refer are high-quality and complete, so that there is little that the legal team need to do in terms of improving the evidence or getting the paperwork ready for issue
• Explore what extra tasks the case officer can undertake, such as those discussed above (drafting exhibit sheets, redacting documents, preparing exclusion maps etc.)

It is also key that an officer does not adopt the view that once a case file is with the legal team their job is done. The case officer will need to continue to gather evidence and ensure that any directions are met. It is important therefore for the case officer to agree with legal an action plan post legal referral, outlining what steps need to be taken, by who and for when.

Whilst the budget holder might not get bills in the same way that an external legal provider would send them, they should still have an understanding of what cases are costing. Regular meetings with the legal team are useful to ensure that the budget holder understands what cases are costing the most money and why, allowing them to identify whether there are any case management processes that can be improved to reduce costs moving forward.

At times when budgets have been reduced, it is really important that an ASB service can maximise the amount of victims of ASB it can support with the budget that it has available. Ensuring that officers are working effectively with legal teams will mean that cases cost less and therefore more actions can be taken if needed.

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