Local authority lawyers were warned at the Lawyers in Local Government weekend school to think carefully before proceeding with plans to establish alternative business structures.

Matthew Adams, principal solicitor (commercial) at HB Public Law, the shared venture between the London boroughs of Harrow and Barnet, told delegates that councils need to be clear what they want to use the ABS for, as it involves ‘quite a lot of work’.

Adams said issues to consider when deciding whether to pursue an ABS include: staffing; costs relating to the application, licence, insurance and providing the service; and ongoing compliance (in-house teams would be ‘very much be on [the SRA’s] radar’.)

Adams said: ‘Right through the SRA process it was a long and, at times, rather frustrating process. They were very much finding their way. We had all manner of strange questions thrown at us.’

Harrow’s director of legal Hugh Peart succeeded Anne Davies as Buckinghamshire County Council’s legal chief this month. In August last year the Solicitors Regulation Authority awarded the first local authority ABS licence to Buckinghamshire Law Plus, a collaboration between Buckinghamshire County Council and Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes Fire Authority. A week later, HB Public Law received approval.

Peart’s appointment is separate from both ABSs’ operations. HB Public Law will take over the legal services of the London Borough of Hounslow in June.

Adams said: ‘What will happen in the future we do not know. It will come to fruition in the next six-12 months. There is a lot of discussion about how we take this forward.’

Meanwhile, the SRA’s executive director of policy Crispin Passmore (pictured) apologised to local authorities that endured a ‘horrific journey’ to set up ABSs.   

Passmore said applications were now being dealt with in less than three months.

He said: ‘Those of you who went through a horrific journey to become an ABS, I’m sorry and we have learnt.

‘The SRA made such a hash [of processing applications] in the first few years because it had no idea what was coming. There were lots of new entrants by law firms with such complex structures behind [them]. Some of the issues in local government were issues we had not previously had to think about and we made a hash of it.’

Passmore acknowledged that the SRA had to ‘get rid of some of the bureaucracy’ in ABS applications.

With corporate owners, for instance, Passmore said the regulator looked at every individual behind the corporate entity. But he said the SRA would make it ‘much quicker to get you up and running’ by approving the entity if the corporate owner was a ‘fit and proper organisation to own a legal services business’.

Passmore also urged councils to make shorter applications. ‘If you send us a lot of information we have to read it and it leads to us asking more questions. Send us less. If we’re not convinced, we will ask further questions.’

  • Bev Cullen, assistant county solicitor (litigation and employment) at Lancashire County Council, was elected president of Lawyers in Local Government at its annual general meeting. Cullen, a former chair of predecessor organisation Solicitors in Local Government, said her presidential year would build on the work of her predecessors, Mark Hynes of Lambeth and Philip Thomson of Essex.