EXCLUSIVE: The Town Hall has mounting legal issues, as it paid south London Rumpoles nearly half a million pounds a month over the past year, reports WALTER CRONXITE
Croydon Council spent £5,477,010 in fees for external legal advice in the 12 months to May 2020, a Freedom of Information request has revealed.
This includes spending more than half a million pounds in a month on five occasions during the year from June 2019.
“Even by Croydon standards, that seems excessive,” a shocked Town Hall source told Inside Croydon.
What should make this huge spend so concerning for Council Tax-payers is that it comes on top of what the council is also paying for its own, internal legal team.
At present, the role of Croydon’s Borough Solicitor, the senior most lawyer working in Fisher’s Folly, is held by Sean Murphy. But Murphy has been described by the council as the “interim director of law and governance” for 18 months since Jacqueline Harris-Baker was promoted to the role of executive director of resources, effectively the council’s deputy CEO, following the sudden resignation of Richard Simpson at the end of 2018.
Harris-Baker is known to work particularly closely to the council chief exec, Jo Negrini, though her background and experience is in law, rather than having the accounting expertise normally associated with the resources role. There’s never been any explanation why Murphy has remained as “interim” for such a prolonged period, nor a permanent replacement for Harris-Baker been appointed.
In five of the past 12 months, according to the council’s FoI response – July, October and December 2019, February and March this year – Croydon spent more than half a million pounds on external legal advice. Last December, £627,008 was spent in external legal fees.
“There’s some south London Rumpoles doing very well out of our council,” the source said.
The FoI request failed to ascertain where all these legal fees are going, nor what the spending has been for.
In the past, the council has spent money very readily on external legal experts to contest tribunals over the provision of services to children and young adults with special educational needs and disabilities. The council has also racked up more than its fair share of complaints to the Local Government Ombudsman, some of which may have required additional advice.
And Inside Croydon has been made aware of a number of departures of senior staff in the past year, some of whom are understood to have exited the revolving doors of Fisher’s Folly carrying with them non-disclosure agreements and a hefty cheque to secure their silence – all of which may have also required the advice of outside lawyers.
The costs may also be associated with relatively more mundane matters, such as legal opinion on matters such as the Westfield CPO or the land deals done on behalf of Brick by Brick, the council’s loss-making house-builder.
But the sheer volume of legal work being placed outside the council is a cause of genuine concern. “Given all of the council’s financial concerns, even before they were hit with the costs of covid-19, these sort of legal bills are very concerning,” said the source.
“If it reflects the number of legal challenges the council is facing, then that is a poor reflection on Croydon not doing the job properly in the first place.”
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