As a new government legal office nears a deal on a new home in Birmingham, Tom Scotney looks at the legal wrangle that could delay the project.
The body representing lawyers in the UK is threatening to launch a legal suit that could delay the arrival of a new government legal office in Birmingham.
The government announced that the Office for Legal Complaints (OLC) could mean the creation of about 350 jobs in the city when it is set up in a year’s time.
But the Law Society has said the move risks breaching the employment rights of the workers in the department being replaced by the OLC.
And it has threatened to take legal action against the Ministry of Justice if things are not changed.
The OLC is believed to have agreed terms to move into Baskerville House, in Birmingham’s Centenary Square and any delays would be a bad sign for the city’s developers, who are still smarting from the MoJ’s decision to put on hold a decentralisation move it was hoped would bring thousands of jobs to the West Midlands.
The OLC is an independent ombudsman-style service investigating complaints by customers about law firms and the legal process.
It is led by a six-strong panel, including high-profile local businessman Brian Woods-Scawen. It will replace the Legal Complaints Service, which has offices in both Leamington Spa and London.
Justice minister Bridget Prentice said of the new jobs: “I do not want to lose the skills and experience built up in the old legal complaints-handling and ombudsman system, so staff already working in that system will be given first opportunity to apply for jobs at the new body in Birmingham.”
But the Law Society said this breaches the legal rights of the workers at the Legal Complaints Society, who should have been automatically re-assigned.
Law Society chief executive Des Hudson said asking people to apply for jobs at the new office would breach TUPE (Transfer of Undertakings, Protection of Employment) agreements.
He called on the Government not to go any further with the recruitment process for the OLC until the dispute had been sorted out.
He said: “We do not believe that the OLC’s proposed approach to staffing the new organisation is fair to existing complaints-handling staff, nor will it secure value for money for the professions that fund the OLC. To press ahead in this way in reckless disregard of the minister’s commitment is unacceptable.
“Despite intensive talks with the OLC and Ministry of Justice, the proposed process ignores the fact that TUPE may apply to the transfer and the minister’s undertaking that TUPE principles will apply to staff in the LCS and other similar bodies when it came to staffing the OLC. That undertaking was first made to the president of the Law Society in December 2005, repeated in the House of Commons during passage of the Legal Services Act and confirmed subsequently in response to a recent parliamentary question.”
A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice denied it had breached the regulations: “The assurance that staff would be transferred under the principles of TUPE has been in place throughout. The OLC hopes that a significant part of the staff complement of the new scheme will come from existing complaints-handling bodies, bringing valuable skills and experience and a desire to be part of this new way of resolving complaints.
“The proposal ensures that staff from existing bodies are treated as if there was continuity of employment (in line with TUPE) and are guaranteed an interview, if they match the assessment centre criteria. This has comparisons to the selection process that would need to be followed if TUPE did apply — since the OLC posts will not be a straight read across from existing posts in current complaints-handling bodies.”
The functions of the LCS are due to be transferred to the OLC late in 2010. The LCS employs 320 staff in Leamington Spa and 51 staff in London to handle complaints against solicitors.
The Law Society said the legal threat was necessary to “protect the interests of its staff at the LCS”.
The announcement that the OLC would be coming to Birmingham was hailed as a coup for the city. It was hoped it would be followed by a proposed Ministry of Justice office that was set to move out of London.
Birmingham was originally on a shortlist for the offices, which would mean thousands of jobs for its new location. But the shortlist was then expanded so the MoJ could consider more locations, and the plans were later put on ice.