SCOTTISH Borders Council leader David Parker has defended the use of external lawyers, based outwith the region, on more than 100 occasions in the last three financial years.
The cost incurred by the cash-strapped council over that period has been just over £293,500, excluding VAT, despite the SBC’s own in-house legal service recently being acknowledged at a national award ceremony as the best local authority law team in Scotland.
The outlay of Council Tax-payers’ money on private, commercial and corporate laywers based outwith the Borders, mainly in Edinburgh and Glasgow, is revealed in a response to a request lodged under Freedom of Information (FoI) legislation.
It reveals that £127,828 was spent in 2008/09, £89,305 in 2009/10 and £76,415, up to January 28 in 2010/11.
Notable large payments included £20,066, £16,752, £10,031, £6,900 and £6,250 (twice) to a single firm, Burness, in relation to employment arbitration cases.
Towards the end of 2008/09, the first outgoings to Brodies, which has offices in Edinburgh and Glasgow, in respect of the Kelso supermarket site, owned by the council and sought after by Tesco and the ultimately successful Sainsbury’s, are detailed.
That work was instructed by SBC’s head of legal services Ian Wilkie and involved payments of more than £8,000 on advice from Brodies. The supermarket expense spilled into 2009/10 with further advice costing £12,000.
On January 14, 2010, SBC paid out £19,550, exclusive of VAT of £2,932, to advocate practice Faculty Services Ltd for representation during the fatal accident inquiry into the suicide in 2008 of headteacher Irene Hogg following an inspection of her school, Glendinning Primary in Galashiels.
The law firm charged the local authority £1,500 for preparation work and £1,650 for each day of the seven-day hearing at Jedburgh Sheriff Court. Sheriff James Farrell found that SBC’s education department had “appropriate” and “suitably flexible” procedures in place.
But less high-profile matters also proved costly in terms of legal fees. In 2010/11, for example, a sheriff court adoption action, described in the FoI response as SBC v JH and PB, incurred payments of £11,000 and £7,850 to Faculty Services Ltd.
However, Councillor Parker this week dismissed suggestions that too much was being spent on external law firms when the council had its own legal team.
“We have an excellent in-house legal department, but it is one of the smallest of any local authority in Scotland,” he told us.
“The stark figures of what we have spent on external legal services does not tell the story of how much that work has saved the council which is obviously not quantifiable.
“Much of the out-of-house legal work we have paid for has been issues-led and that includes major capital projects, such as the railway, the public private partnership [PPP] deals to secure three new high schools and the Kelso supermarket.
“These all involved hugely complicated legal matters, beyond the physical capabilities of our small in-house team and there are times when we need to bring in expert help.
“In Kelso, for instance, we were up against parties who could afford to employ the best QCs [Queen’s Counsel], so it was necessary to instruct a QC to protect the interests of this council and Council Tax payers in the Borders.”
SBC’s in-house lawyers were the only local authority legal team in Scotland to make it to the national finals of the Municipal Journal UK awards in London in June.
Writing of that achievement in the Law Society Journal, SBC solicitor Susan Shaw said: “It has provided us with another opportunity to take stock, talk to our customers and gain insight into innovative and creative ideas and examples of best practice which are out there are present.
“We’re already looking at whether some of these can be implemented here in the Borders.”