Bankrupt council paid firm of solicitors £2m over two years

CROYDON IN CRISIS: The council used to have a senior official known as the ‘Borough Solicitor’. These days, the cash-strapped council is out-sourcing much of its legal work to a single firm of solicitors, at huge cost.
EXCLUSIVE by STEVEN DOWNES

Legal eagle: Stephen Lawrence-Orumwense, Croydon’s most senior legal official

Croydon Council paid a single firm of solicitors more than £2million in the two years from when the authority first declared itself bankrupt, through until November 2022, Inside Croydon can reveal.

As reported by Inside Croydon last year, lawyers from Browne Jacobson LLP have been sitting-in as legal advisers to planning officials at the council’s fortnightly planning committee meetings since last April.

This function used to be performed by lawyers on the council’s staff, specialists in aspects of planning law.

Browne Jacobson have also been called upon for other aspects of legal advice, too, such as over the dodgy £437,000 payment made to the council’s departing chief exec, Jo Negrini, when she quit in a bit of a hurry in 2020. Inside Croydon obtained Browne Jacobson’s “confidential” legal advice after the council published it… ahem… on its own website last September.

In their advice from April 2022, Browne Jacobson (no individual author was identified in the firm’s advice note) found that senior council employees working on the fiasco of the Fairfield Halls refurbishment had shown “serious” failings “over a prolonged period” that had “exposed the council to significant financial and legal risk”. They also recommended that those responsible should be referred to their professional regulatory bodies.

Despite such sage advice coming at great cost to the tax-payers of Croydon, the council’s current CEO, Katherine Kerswell, has so far failed to act on any of those recommendations.

The amount paid to Browne Jacobson over the course of the two years following the borough’s bankruptcy was confirmed to Inside Croydon through a response to a Freedom of Information request.

Penn’d up: Katherine Kerswell has resisted all calls to publish the Penn Report

“Browne Jacobson is a legal service provider engaged under contract with the council,” the FoI response stated.

“Browne Jacobson, are instructed from time to time on a wide range of matters, including planning, social care and education, governance, prosecutions, investigations and litigation matters.”

In providing the amounts paid to Browne Jacobson, the council appeared to try to soften the blow by quoting a figure excluding VAT – at 20per cent on top of the £1,681,873 expenditure on the lawyers, even the VAT comes to more than one-third of a million pounds.

Such profligacy may have been commonplace under Croydon’s previous, Labour administration, but it does not appear to have been staunched since Conservative Jason Perry was elected as Mayor last May.

Councils across the country in the past had teams of lawyers working on all aspects of the authorities’ functions, the legal department headed by someone known as the Borough Solicitor. Croydon doesn’t have a Borough Solicitor longer… they’ve traded up and put a barrister in charge.

Stephen Lawrence-Orumwense joined Croydon last year as its director of legal services and monitoring officer.

It is a statutory appointment, required by law at every local authority. Lawrence-Orumwense’s predecessors in Croydon, such as Julie Belvir and Jacqueline Harris-Baker, both carried the Borough Solicitor title.

At the time he was recruited by Croydon, Lawrence-Orumwense was listed by Companies House as a director of an estate agency based in Dartford.

Back in February 2022, Kerswell submitted a report to the appointments committee outlining the monitoring officer’s role and seeking approval for the annual salary of £104,902 to £109,140.

The post-holder, Kerswell wrote, would be a member of the council’s senior management.

“The director of legal services will be the council’s chief legal officer responsible for the provision of all legal services to the council…”, our italics, “and ensures the council remains in compliance with the law and best practice, the governance function of the council and promote the council’s corporate competencies and values through day-to-day managerial behaviours,” Kerswell wrote in her report to councillors.

“The director of legal services will provide high-quality professional advice to the corporate director of resources, the chief executive, leader and cabinet, the scrutiny and overview committee and any other external bodies of the council.” Note that: high-quality professional advice.

It was Lawrence-Orumwense who in November authorised and oversaw the High Court injunction by the council against this website. That ill-considered and unnecessary action is estimated to have cost Council Tax-payers another £20,000 in legal fees to counsel and in associated costs, while also seeing Croydon referred to as “a national laughing stock” by Private Eye magazine.

It is now almost three months since Lawrence-Orumwense also agreed to have outside consultants Kroll hired to investigate who leaked the Penn Report to this website.

Kroll are another external consultancy that has done very well out of cash-strapped Croydon’s troubles, while actually delivering up very little.

According to an FoI response, since February last year, the council has already paid Kroll £315,340. Or as they disingenuously prefer to describe it, “£262,784 (plus VAT)”.

“Kroll were commissioned to review the events around the refurbishment of Fairfield Halls and related expenditure overruns and, following investigation, report on any indications of fraud, conflicts of interest, potential breaches of fiduciary duty and any other wrongdoing,” the council obligingly explained.

“They were appointed via the Crown Commercial Services framework under officer delegated powers.”

This was the investigation into how a refurbishment managed by notorious Brick by Brick that was budgeted at £30million managed to over-run and under-deliver and yet still cost £67million.

Kroll’s report on the Fairfield fiasco was originally due to be delivered by the end of August 2022.

Then it was expected by the end of September. By November, Kerswell was telling councillors that the report was expected soon.

Suffice to say, despite being paid £315,000 for their efforts, Kroll have yet to deliver any report. Perhaps someone should launch an investigation into how an organisation can be paid nearly one-third of a million pounds and yet still not deliver its final report more than four months after deadline?

All is revealed: The council has been more concerned about who leaked the Penn Report than acting on its recommendations

Goodness knows how long, and for how much, Kroll might string out their investigation into the leaking of the Penn Report.

Nearly three months after they were asked to do so, Kroll have so far failed to make contact with Inside Croydon.

It was Inside Croydon who received the 160-page document in October, and we have been publishing extracts from it ever since. We know exactly how we obtained it. Not that we’re saying, naturally… But you’d think Kroll might at least ask.

In a report to the council’s appointments committee in November, a Fisher’s Folly official simpered, “The council… confirmed that publication of the contents of the Penn Report was without the council’s permission and was therefore unauthorised and unlawful.

“It has notified all parties who have stated they have copies of the leaked report of this and requested that they cease all commentary on its contents and return the report to the council. No copies have been received.” Awww. Shame!

“The council has also notified the Information Commissioner’s Office of the incident pending an external investigation into the circumstances of the leaking of the draft copy of the Penn Report.

“The council has commissioned Kroll to undertake that investigation.”

The appointments committee failed to mention any upper limit on spending on Kroll for this particular wild goose chase. Trebles all-round!

That meeting took place on the afternoon of Wednesday, November 9. Lawrence-Orumwense and Kerswell were both present, with the meeting chaired by the Mayor, Jason Perry.

The meeting was held in Fisher’s Folly, in Room 1.01.

Orwellian indeed.

Eye opener: how the council has been ridiculed in the country’s best-selling current affairs magazine

This meeting was much occupied with the Penn Report, and all the feeble excuses that Kerswell and Lawrence-Orumwense could summon up for refusing to make the report public, and failing to act on any of the report author’s official recommendations.

That evening, Lawrence-Orumwense issued his High Court injunction against Inside Croydon, for daring to publish material that had already been sitting in the public domain on the council website for six weeks.

Attendees at the appointments committee meeting, Conservative and Labour councillors, confirm that at no point did Lawrence-Orumwense or Kerswell discuss with them the wisdom, or lack of it, of trying to injunct against the publication of documents that the council itself had already published.

Inside Croydon has also had it confirmed from senior Katharine Street sources that Mayor Perry, when he was eventually advised of the council’s latest expensive legal action, chose not to try to stop the futile court case.

Once there was a hearing at the High Court, the case was quickly dismissed by judge Mr Justice Nicklin. The judge told the council’s counsel: “You’re trying to put the genie back in the bottle.”

Much of the legal advice that Lawrence-Orumwense wanted withdrawn from the public domain remains published by Inside Croydon.

You can view it here:

As well as advice from Browne Jacobson, this also includes further legal insights from Jane Mulcahy KC, of Blackstone Chambers.

According to the FoI response from Fisher’s Folly, “The council incurred fees of £18,340 (plus VAT) for leading counsel’s advice.”

Or another £22,008 spent on legal advice that Kerswell and the council has yet to action…

Read more: Council withdraws High Court case against Inside Croydon
Read more: #PennReport wanted police probe into possible misconduct
Read more: #PennReport: No referrals sent to staff’s professional bodies



About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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23 Responses to Bankrupt council paid firm of solicitors £2m over two years

  1. Laurence Fisher says:

    This shouldn’t come as a surprise- the more they spend on this stuff, the more they have to hide. Where are the police???

  2. Lancaster says:

    It’s a sad reflection on today’s council culture that its senior staff lack the skills, awareness and knowledge to employ the staff needed to deliver its own functions.

    Outsourcing is an admission of failure.

    Why pay the private sector to deliver a service where ‘profit’ for directors and shareholders is a priority; why not employ these very same skilled individuals at the same private sector salaries to deliver that service for the council in-house and NOT pay the dividends and public sector gouging, costing less ?

    The reason, these senior Council staff, directors and chief officers are idiots, punching well above their employed value.

    If they had an ounce of common sense they would realise this or go and get a job they are skilled at !

  3. Phil Worsfold says:

    You couldn’t make it up! Honestly are there any decent negotiators at the Council. It would appear that suppliers simply charge what they want and the Council are happy to pay. Croydon Council you are looking for a negotiator I would be happy to help. Suppliers are getting away with murder.

  4. Jim Bush says:

    “The council… confirmed that publication of the contents of the Penn Report was without the council’s permission and was therefore unauthorised and unlawful.”
    And let’s face it, Croydon Council know everything there is to know about “unauthorised and unlawful” behaviour ?!

  5. Lewis White says:

    Local authorities used to have a wide range of professional officers in all the fields of activity from Planning to Engineering to Building to Parks to Environmental Health to Housing to Social services to ……… .

    Over many years, the resource– technically qualified and experienced staff– has been reduced by year-on- year cuts to the budget, so the ability of councils to do a whole range of things has reduced, not only because budgets for running the services are less, but the number of council staff has been cut. Knowledge has in some cases gone, as people retired. It stands to reason that with fewer staff, corporate knowledge and experience is reduced overall.

    Salaries of the majority of people at all lower and most middle postions in the organisation have reduced, relative to the private sector, other than top people who are well remunerated. Some, very well remunerated.

    As with the NHS having to outsource because of staff shortages, at huge financial costs to pay the private sector fees, and middle-men profits, a depleted and de-skilled Local Government has to outsource too.

    Presumably, this is why Croydon are spending so much with outside lawyers.

    Of course, many politicians are very happy with this, as the private sector is benefitting. I wonder what Chris Philp thinks?

    Local Government salaries for the general run of staff need to be increased to keep up with inflation, retain good staff, and keep talent in-house, so that it can do all the tasks it needs to.

    Local Government budgets need to be maintained and increased .

    Undoubtedly, Local Govcernment needs to up its game too, and re-nail its colours to the public service ethos mast.

    There will always be a need for specific expert legal advice on certain matters, but the outsourcing of Planning Legal advice is a sick joke.

    Finding efficiencies is very difficult now, when 20 years of cuts have depleted the real value of budgets by hundreds of percent. Zombie councils are the result.

  6. It is a concern that little progress is being made on changing the culture of the council will all efforts focused instead on trying to slow down the increasing rate of financial decline.

  7. Ian Lavis says:

    Another day, another scandal.

    I would love to see in-depth interviews with senior figures like Kerswell. Does insidecroydon try for this? No other media seems interested in quizzing those at the top. The leaders at the council do what they want and appear unanswerable.

  8. £2 million in 2 years. A million quid a year. That’s our money being paid to a piss poor law firm that’s failing to deliver the goods.

    This begs the questions, how much would it would cost if the legal function were brought back in house, and would that improve the quality and speed of advice given to council Members and Officers?

    Answers on an email to the Mayor@croydon.gov.uk

  9. “At the time he was recruited by Croydon, Lawrence-Orumwense was listed by Companies House as a director of an estate agency based in Dartford.”

    Who better to sell off the Brick by Brick flats in Coulsdon and get a decent price for them

  10. Sarah Bird says:

    If it is necessary for outside Solicitors to be instructed at this level ( are the costs assessed ?) , then very clearly questions need to be raised . Furthermore a full explanation of all of those officers employment need to be considered. What exactly are the very well paid staff at Croydon Council actually employed to do?

    I am still at a loss to understand why the £100,000-plus per year lawyer did not attend the Inside Croydon injunction hearing in November 2022. His excuse, I recall, was that there was a Tube strike, notwithstanding that Croydon isn’t on the Tube network. He might easily taken the train to Victoria and the No11 bus. The RCJ has its own bus stop.

  11. Lancaster says:

    Should there be an FoI request into the tender process for this legal work, so best value and due process is evidenced ? That way all residents will have their concerns put to rest.

    • Probably, though the council has been answering FoIs selectively.

      It took them 18 months to finally admit there had been no competitive tender on the Fairfield Halls, remember?

      And it is now THREE years since we submitted an FoI and SAR for the correspondence that allowed the previous legal team – headed by Jacqueline Harris-Baker and Sean Murphy – to advise Negrini and Newman that they could use the Queen’s solicitors to threaten libel action against this website. Even though such action by councillors and councils is specifically banned in law….

      • Ian Kierans says:

        Not a record – have been waiting since 2017 for one and 2018 for another. 3 others have yet to be acknowledged and one I have been told to follow a process not required under law or it will be ignored.
        For some reason they are unable to access the emails of those that have left the Council but do not want copies of said emails which have been kept by myself.

        • Jim Bush says:

          You are too trusting, Ian. Croydon Council SAY they “are unable to access the emails of those that have left the Council”, but that is almost certainly just an excuse and they are actually lying !

          • Ian Kierans says:

            I know those emails remain on the server in an archive account – sometimes it may after a few months dependent on their provider incur a cost of retrieval. But I can show not just the email I sent but the responses from those directors that have left and one that has stayed and moved over and the tracking of them all including those sent and responded to from all the parties involved.
            I can only assume that Croydon Council does not like to have that amount of data with pictures and evidence and perhaps prefers to ignore it as to difficult to deal with.

        • Sarah Bird says:

          The ICO can serve Notice upon the Council. It did on my case . Council still failed to respond.

      • Ian Kierans says:

        Legal Bullying?
        Perhaps calling it as it seems is more appropriate?
        Sometimes the lack of an answer speaks volumes as to the original veracity of a complaint?

    • Jim Bush says:

      “Concerns put to rest”? Or their suspicions confirmed ?!

  12. Ian Kierans says:

    Councils make and apply as they see fit all the civil regulations and have the powers to provide the resources (or not in this borough evidenced) to enable those regulations and by-laws to be amended changed prioritised and enforced – or not (again in this borough evidenced)

    Councils also take cases to Court in the Public interest. (or perhaps not as is perceived in this Borough – Is IC case evidence? I believe so but perhaps not fully from a legal basis as no appeal ruling)

    This Council has had advice to go to a legal process and has failed repeatedly to do so. Perhaps it has also had other Criminally legal advice to not do so?

    This Council has taken IC to Court for publishing what they released themselves.

    Forgive me for stating the bleeding obvious- but exactly what real estate legal law school did Lawrence graduate from? Now I could be wrong – but I do not believe that Lawrence took that decision to act.

    Fundamentally a lawyer gives advice and the probability of winning in court with the risks. The Director or senior person takes the action sometimes in spite of advice or that there is multiple risks in different spheres of say the PESTLE analysis acronym. (see link for explanation) https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/550691/Tool_3.pdf
    Maybe Lawrence was instructed to act by his superiors and liking his 6 figure salary took a very sensible course of action and did so.

    Sadly when a body or person transgress the laws they are empowered to manage and enforce – or perhaps do not feel they have obey the laws that they enforce as they feel they are exempt from them as they are the Council you have a problem.

    It grows when they are caught. It becomes toxic the longer it is sat on or covered up even with silence.
    But it goes nuclear when they are in denial for years.

    So ask this rotting body to re-valuate it’s analysis as the Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Environmental and now the Legal detriments are looking like they are outweighing any and all perceived benefits.

    I would suggest that unless there is an ongoing Criminal investigation taking place the grounds previously to keep this under wraps are veritable quicksand and this Executive needs to regain some credibility.

    Perhaps before the mere mention of it’s name does not engender projectile vomiting on those within hearing distance might be useful?

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