Legal costs defended

COUNCIL chiefs today strongly defended cash spent on paying external companies for legal advice.

By the end of next month, the town hall will have authorised £500,000 on legal costs – despite having its own 30-strong legal team.

The scale of the outlay was revealed in answers to questions posed by former Wigan Central councillor and Independent Tory leader Gareth Fairhurst under the Freedom of Information act.

Mr Fairhurst said: “The council has its own large legal department, so why does it need to go outside so much for advice?

“I accept that there might be an unusual case now and again which is not common, but £500,000 is ridiculous!”

Mr Fairhurst said that to date the council has spent £390,000 in this financial year on outside legal advice but was predicting to reach the £500,000 by the end of March.

But Wigan Council’s Director of Corporate Services Paul McKevitt said that any organisation with a turnover of more than £950m and that provides hundreds of services daily would be expected to have a legal department AND obtain legal advice.

He said: “In Wigan Council’s case we have an internal legal department that is amongst the cheapest quarter of all Metropolitan councils.

“The legal team supports the work of the council in number of ways through drawing up contracts to dealing with land searches. In a number of our services we charge a fee so while there is a cost this is recovered.

He said that in terms of external legal advice, in these “more litigious times” the council finds as with all similar organisations, that it needs support in court cases, or for specialist advice.

He said: “In these cases we have a choice to either defend a case and incur legal costs or just settle the case and pay compensation, which could well be in excess of the costs incurred. However if we are successful then we generally recover these costs.”

Mr McKevitt said that council tax payers would expect it to take a robust stance in defending any claims made against it.

And a prime example of this would be the recent case of the three individuals who attempted to claim compensation against the council for whiplash injuries after their vehicle was in collision with a council vehicle.