Shock cost of council legal bills

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WIGAN Council has spent more than £1m on legal fees in five years - despite having its own legal department of 20 people.

And latest figures show that, despite having to cut more than £47m from budgets which is now threatening 800 jobs over the next three years, the level of spending on legal services from outside chambers and solicitors firms show few signs of slowing down, with £168,320 spent in this current financial year up to February 14.

Head of Legal Services John Mitchell said: “External legal resources are used when appropriate for specialist work.”

Over the past five years the council has employed the services of 10 different firms of solicitors for outside legal advice and representation (excluding personal injury claims).

The full costs of all investigations from the council’s Standards Committee into the behaviour of councillors over the past five years show £6,019 in 2008/09, £15,568 in 2009/10 and £27,032 in 2010/11.

The figures were collected by Lib Dem Tyldesley Hindsford opposition coun Robert Bleakley under a Freedom of Information application.

He said today he was shocked by the scale of the spending.

Count Bleakley said: “I had my suspicions that it would be a lot of money and expected it to be quite high, but certainly not as much as that.

“We pay the borough solicitor £97,000 a year and he has more than 20 legal people underneath him and yet we are having to pay these huge bills for outside legal advice on council matters to external solicitors and barristers.

“It begs the question what good are we getting from our own legal services and whether, if we have to go elsewhere, we need these services in house.

“At a time of 800 job cuts, I wonder if this level of expenditure really can be justified?

“It might be perceived as peanuts within the upper echelons of the council but to the residents in my ward it is an awful lot of money and they will, I am certain, share my concern.”

Legal boss John Mitchell added: “The council’s legal department, in common with other local authorities, has a fixed number of permanent staff and uses external resources when appropriate due to the specialist nature of the work or lack of capacity within the in-house team.

“The council has combined with other authorities in a tendering process to obtain the services of external solicitors at the lowest possible cost.”