The in-house legal voice

Anthony Armitage, general counsel at Southern Housing Group, discusses building an in-house legal team and how it can add value to core executive functions of an organisation.

When I first joined Southern Housing Group, seven years ago, I had a vision of what the legal function would look like. This was based on my experience as a solicitor at Allen & Overy and as partner at Davies Arnold Cooper, as well as running my own business consultancy for 12 years.

In large organisations, like Southern Housing Group (equivalent to a FTSE 250 company), the in-house counsel usually has a close relationship with and direct reporting line to the Executive Management Team and in some cases, the Board.

Back in mists of time (2014), I talked about this relationship and the benefits it can bring, in the CT Brief – Issue 12. Then, the concept of general counsel in the housing sector was not, perhaps, as well understood as it was in other industries.

Therefore, when I took up the role as the Group’s first in-house lawyer, I knew integration into the wider business would be a gradual process. In fact, as predicted, the legal team grew at the rate of one new position every three years; with a new specialism being brought in each time, to the benefit of the team and the Group. We now comprise of three solicitors providing a demand-led general counsel service to most parts of the business.

Southern Housing Group Legal Team 2019

Case study: tackling disrepair allegations

To our delight, the team’s work has been recognised, reaching the shortlist for in-house Legal Team of the Year 2019 at the Law Society Excellence Awards. For this, we decided to showcase our project on tackling disrepair claims, which we felt had all the ingredients for an engaging story. Until then, we had predominantly been an advisory, commercial and transaction service for the Group. Taking a leap into a contentious discipline, this took us well beyond our comfort zone.

The project began in 2017 when we noticed a sharp rise in the number of disrepair allegations being made against the Group. We carried out research in the housing media and discovered this was a sector-wide problem, with a surge in spurious claims being made against social housing landlords.  We immediately identified this as a business risk.

After extensive consultations with Southern Housing Group’s internal repairs, housing management, customer services, data protection and business support teams, we decided for the first time to bring 75% of new disrepair cases in-house and adopt a new approach to investigating and defending the claims.

To date, we have achieved a 100% success record in eliminating non-repair costs in all the cases we defended. Such cases had previously cost the Group £9,000 each in damages and legal costs. This resulted in no proceedings issued and no costs incurred, other than the costs of the repairs themselves which resulted in savings for the Group of £135,000 in just nine months.

Fulfilling organisational value  

The project also delivered key corporate objectives in these four ways:

1. Repairs are now carried out more efficiently;

2. Needless litigation is avoided;

3. Reputational risk from defending unsubstantiated claims is mitigated and;

4. Customer service is improved as the Group invests the money saved back into the business.

 

Our awards initiative has shown how in-house counsel can play an important part in improving performance.

We constantly listen to stakeholders and assess risks from different perspectives, drawing on our breadth of experience and objectivity to help the business make, and record fully reasoned decisions, and then proceed to implement them.

As we approach round two of the regulator’s in-depth assessments, we know the focus will be on governance and value for money standards being met in the context of business as usual.  This was a robust, costed and timed operation which is now being used to inform future risk management and business planning, ticking all the right boxes on the regulator’s checklist.

The project serves as an excellent example of how in-house counsel adds value in core executive functions. Indeed, where the legal voice is heard at strategic level and is routinely involved in decision-making, the results can be game-changing in both standards of assessment.

Find out more: shgroup.org.uk or @SHGroupUK

To discuss this article, contact Sue Harvey: sue.harvey@campbelltickell.com

 

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Campbell Tickell is an established multi-disciplinary management and recruitment consultancy, operating across the UK and Ireland, focusing on the housing, social care, local government, sport, leisure, charity and voluntary sectors.

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