South Hams solicitor service in ‘dismal state’

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Cllr John Birch, Lib Dem, South Hams Totnes (Image: John Birch)

District Council backlog under threat

South Hams District Council’s legal services are a ‘sinister situation’ and a lack of solicitors is leading to a long backlog.

The comments, by Totnes Lib Dem member Cllr John Birch, came as officers admitted the council was struggling to fill vacancies for five barristers.

Speaking to the South Hams Oversight and Review Board on Thursday June 16, Cllr Birch said he had little hope the jobs would be filled in the near future.

“The legal department is in dire straits with five lawyers down,” he said.

“The possibility of recruiting five lawyers is going to be extremely difficult. And I’m not at all optimistic.

Cllr Birch said there were many examples of huge delays in legal work and highlighted a case in his own department.

“In May 2018, the executive decided to grant a lease to an organization in Totnes which is still outstanding. It has now been four years.

“It’s a very unfortunate organization. In my opinion, it all boils down to a lack of legal resources on this board.

Cllr Birch suggested the current system of employing solicitors to work for South Hams and West Devon councils was flawed and that it would be better to work with more local authorities in a wider area. He said it was a method used in London.

“They have what are called public sector frameworks, where the judicial authorities come together and appoint a panel of lawyers who deal with specific issues,” he explained.

“For example, they have what is called a London Borough Legal Alliance. This is where all the councils in London came together and found a combined way of dealing with legal matters.

“There are other ways to deal with this rather than just hiring lawyers.”

Responding to comments, South Hams and West Devon governance and insurance director Drew Powell insisted they were doing everything they could to manage the situation.

“We are actively trying to build a team that has the capacity, resilience and skills to support the board. There were some difficulties,” Powell said.

“We don’t just rely on our own in-house lawyers. We use other authorities [and] also external law firms. So it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.

Cllr Birch proposed that South Hams District Council set up a ‘Working and Finishing Group’ which is a sub-group of a larger project, which specifically looks at an item that needs to be delivered.

Dartmouth and East Dart Conservative Councilor Rosemary Rowe was skeptical of such a group and said it was not always effective.

“I don’t see the point of a task-and-finish group because I’ve never seen a task-and-finish group work that has come to a conclusion,” she said.

“We still have a task to accomplish and finish groups that are in action. If we don’t have the staff, how are we going to have a test and finish group that will be busy? »

Mr Powell disagreed with Cllr Rowe, saying there are many examples of successful task and finish groups and most of them have completed the tasks they were set up to do.

But the members of the committee voted against the creation of such a group.

A spokesperson for South Hams District Council said: ‘We have completed an internal review of our current legal arrangement to ensure that the required capacity and skills are currently met.

“While the current recruitment of more lawyers is underway, we are using agency staff, as well as support from external law firms and local authority legal teams to respond to requests from the Council.”

The commission agreed to review the recruitment of lawyers at the next summary and control meeting on Thursday 21 July, if the vacant positions have not been filled.

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