Harrow Council’s legal department is one of only two local authority shared services ventures to have been awarded ABS status. Grania Langdon-Down talks to Linda Walker about the decision and the process

The decision by Harrow Council in London to create an ABS set its in-house legal team huge challenges, but the result has helped break new ground.

“What we want to promote more than anything is our value as an in-house service”

Linda Walker

Two years ago, Harrow and Barnet councils merged their legal teams to form HB Public Law (HBPL). Always innovative, HBPL decided last year to partner with public sector specialists Bevan Brittan so, together, they could tender for new work offering both public and private sector expertise.

But the journey didn’t stop there and the next stage was to seek ABS status with consultant Linda Walker, former head of legal at Durham County Council, joining the team as business development manager to drive the application forward.

‘Part of the original shared services deal was that Barnet would buy a certain amount of hours,’ Ms Walker explains. ‘But, because its services have been outsourced, the employed solicitors’ code meant the in-house team couldn’t follow the work. There is an argument that the client is really the council rather than the private outsourcing firm but we didn’t feel confident enough to proceed on that basis.’

The way forward, she says, was to take advantage of the new ABS model and set up a separate entity HB Public Law Ltd. The ABS application took months because it was breaking new ground but it was finally authorised in the summer.

‘The reality is that, as a public body, we are probably less of a risk than most private firms but it was a learning curve for both us and the SRA,’ says Ms Walker. ‘However, there was definitely a will to reach a successful conclusion and I think it has paved the way for a smoother process for future applications.’

One of the key challenges was sourcing professional indemnity insurance. ‘Insurers didn’t understand the set up,’ she says. ‘Either they wouldn’t give a quote or it was ridiculously high but we did eventually get a reasonable quote through a broker.’

When it comes to staffing, HBPL’s 70 fee-earners will stay as employees of Harrow Council, as the lead authority, and work for the ABS under a charging arrangement.

The new ABS has been careful not to estimate how much profit it may achieve in case it becomes a hostage to fortune. The plan is to build work through the shared service and use the ABS to expand its client base, including advising other commissioning councils alongside Barnet.

‘It isn’t our plan to pursue large amounts of private sector work,’ Ms Walker says. ‘That would be foolish. What we want to promote more than anything is our value as an in-house service so we are taking a gently, gently approach. We don’t want to be seen as a commercial firm taking over legal services. Our real selling point is we can be your in-house service which is a lot less threatening for other authorities.’

As pioneers, others are turning to them for advice. ‘I do think we could save people time and effort,’ she says. ‘But our business plan took a lot of blood, sweat and tears so we are being quite firm that we can’t just give it out for free.’

But if there is one piece of advice she would give others, it is this: ‘Think long and hard whether you really need an ABS. A lot of authorities are thinking ‘we had better get one’ but, in 90% of cases, they don’t and there are a lot of expenses in terms of time, resources and money if you do go ahead.’