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In-house Division

Parrots and politics: inside a police force's legal department

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Sue Dauncey, head of legal services for Avon and Somerset Police, gives an insight into her department, in coversation with Caroline Roddis

If you apply for a job at Avon and Somerset’s in-house legal department, there’s one key element that  Sue Dauncey is looking for. ‘Keeping your sense of humour is absolutely essential’, she says, ‘there is the potential to become hysterical at the amount of work, or the nature of the work that is directed to us, and the emergency nature of it on occasions.’

“We are looking at collaborative opportunities, case management opportunities, and less formal collaborations. We’ve always been very small departments, but I think that it’s more important nowadays that, where we can share resources, be that IT or staff, we do so to help with our resilience.”

Sue Dauncey

Although this is said with a degree of levity, there’s no doubt that her department offers some unique challenges.

‘The joy of this job is that the variety is huge’, she explains. ’You can be dealing with something high profile one day and something much more straightforward or local the next. For example, I’ve dealt with the Glastonbury festival since 1987, and we advised on the policing operation at NATO over the last couple of weeks.

‘You can be dealing with something like that one minute, and the next you can have a telephone call from a police officer who’s seized a parrot, or one who’s seized a packet of frozen trout and doesn’t know whether to return it, or make a seized property application in the magistrate’s court.’

Dauncey has been working for Avon and Somerset Police since 1987, when jobs for police force solicitors were first advertised following the creation of the Crown Prosecution Service. An amiable, multi-talented woman with a public sector background and what she describes as a ‘butterfly mind’, Dauncey was forced to invent and evolve her role in the absence of any guidance from above - as did the other 13 lawyers around the country in the same new positions.

After 20 years in the role, she expanded her team to take over the extra task of civil litigation, creating a department of 16 that now includes five qualified lawyers, four paralegals, one case worker who deals with disclosure work into family proceedings, three practice assistants, a practice manager role and a business apprentice.

The department’s work varies from strategy around the direction of travel for the police force, to domestic violence and stolen property. ‘Last time we counted the areas of legal activity we undertake’, recounts Dauncey, ‘there were 52!’.

The breadth of their work means that there are a lot of legislative changes that affect their department. These range from the Jackson reforms, which have ‘impacted a number of forces around the country because a many of us deal with civil claims’, to the government’s investigation into whiplash claims, affecting forces dealing with their own motor incident claims, the new Anti-Social Behaviour Crime and Policing Act and domestic violence protection orders.

‘We are also dealing with the recommendations that came out of Leveson, in addition to the investigations going on at the moment around human rights issues, with regards to Article 2 and Article 3 in particular, as well as Article 8 in terms of privacy issues and which affect confidence in policing nationally.’ When one considers that dealing with all these changes comes on top of coping with the recent changes of governance and the arrival of Police and Crime Commissioners, Dauncey’s comment that ‘there’s an awful lot going on at the moment’ seems like quite an understatement.   

Yet the fact that she constantly refers to those in other police force legal departments as ‘colleagues’ hints that there is help available. Dauncey is chair of the Association of Police Lawyers, which started as a loose network of those first 14 solicitors in the 1980s, and has grown into an organisation of more than 190 people.

Not only is there excellent support in terms of events run by the Association, but there is also a collaborative relationship on practical levels. ‘The one thing we have in common is that the public sector has been subject to quite drastic cuts as a result of austerity measures from the government’ explains Dauncey.

‘We are looking at collaborative opportunities, case management opportunities, and less formal collaborations. We’ve always been very small departments, but I think that it’s more important nowadays that, where we can share resources, be that IT or staff, we do so to help with our resilience.’

Those budget cuts have definitely had an impact. Dauncey counts herself lucky that she was able to expand her department before the recession, and that she appointed a practice manager: ’I work with my practice manager to constantly review the different ways of working, so we’re always looking at being as innovative as we can to produce efficiencies.

“The issue for us is, whereas a local authority wants to look outside local government work and provide services to other organisations and the public, there’s not a general feeling within the police service, certainly within legal, that we cannot provide a service any wider than at present”

Sue Dauncey

‘We’ve got fewer resources with more work, and you have to find ways of managing that so it doesn’t impact on your staff, otherwise that’s where people become ill or mistakes are made. On the rare occasions that has happened we try to move quickly to learn so that it doesn’t happen again. Through diligent housekeeping we have managed to maintain our quality of service - touch wood!’

Despite this consistent level of quality, the department has considered the ABS option, looking at examples in Kent and Lincolnshire to see what lessons can be learned. They have also been using knowledge gleaned from private sector teams at the Law Society’s in-house forum to shape their ideas. In Sue’s opinion, however, the time is not yet ripe for ABSs in her sector.

‘The issue for us is, whereas a local authority wants to look outside local government work and provide services to other organisations and the public, there’s not a general feeling within the police service, certainly within legal, that we cannot provide a service any wider than at present. We are working in a relatively unique high risk and high profile environment but we will also have to wait and see what happens with government proposals about bringing together the three emergency services, which are very much in early stages. It’s a question for the future.’

It might be a demanding job, but it is clear that Sue Dauncey relishes the challenge. Her work has not been without recognition, either: in 2011 she was awarded an MBE for services to policing. ‘I still only believe it when I open my dressing table and see it’ says Dauncey. ‘I think it’s recognition for police staff and police lawyers, the work of which is often unnoticed throughout the country.’

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