Urgent change sought at Chief State Solicitor's Office

 

TWO weeks ago a report was published on the operation of the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, saying poor and incomplete Garda files and delays in providing Garda forensic reports were seriously hampering the DPP's work.

Now a consultants' report has emerged which warns of possible imminent disaster at the Chief State Solicitor's Office unless major changes are implemented there quickly.

The picture drawn by Deloitte & Touche is of a seriously understaffed office with outdated management structures whose personnel are trying valiantly to cope with an ever growing deluge of work.

The consultants were asked to review the organisation and management of the Office of the Chief State Solicitor last May. The study involved interviews with management, staff and union representatives in the CSSO's office. The consultants also interviewed the Attorney General, the DPP and a number of Government Department representatives who use the CSSO's services.

Such clients of the CSSO have expressed concern in relation to the level of service, timeliness of response and lack of consistency in the quality of service", but nevertheless the organisation has for the most part been able to provide a basic service to its clients "due to the expertise and commitment of management and staff working in very difficult circumstances."

While praising the staff, the report says pressure on the office has grown greatly since the increase in the number of judges, the lengthening of the court calendar, new legislation, an increase in the number of hearing loss cases and other matters.

Under resourcing and ineffective structures in this key part of the State's legal services could have grave consequences. The Chief State Solicitor acts as solicitor to the Attorney General and carries out all civil legal work for the State emanating from Government Departments. The work includes the provision of advice, conveyancing and civil litigation. The Chief State Solicitor also acts as solicitor for the DPP and for the Garda in preparing and presenting cases in the Dublin courts.

Any inefficiencies or mistakes in these key areas could cause severe political embarrassment for a government. The report warns that unless the lack of resources is tackled there are serious risks, some of which are becoming increasingly likely.

The risks are that "judgments will be granted against the State for failure to file defence cases will be dismissed that should not have been, cases that should have been won will be lost, bad advice will be given, government Departments will suffer delays . . . claims will be settled and legal costs incurred at an unnecessarily high level.

"Without intending to overstate these points, it should be noted that in these situations the State could incur significant financial costs and in some instances risk embarrassment to the government, in particular in the mishandling of politically sensitive cases.

The CSSO's ability to meet fundamental obligations, such as "to present accurate and complete books of evidence before the courts in a timely manner", is put at risk by the under resourcing coupled with increased demands on the office. A failure to present a book of evidence could result in charges being struck out, an accused party being released "and consequential negative publicity being gained".

The report states: "The CSSO is a seriously under resourced organisation and is not in a position to effectively and efficiently meet the demands placed on it." Among the principal deficiencies listed are:

. It does not have enough legal services personnel to provide an adequate service.

. It needs extra staff to support the legal staff. Extra personnel should provide new services in personnel, finance, information technology, library and information services.

. Management roles and responsibilities are largely undefined. The organisation structure, management skills and accountability need to be improved.

. Understaffing in the typing area has contributed to regular typing delays in excess of 10 days.

. The office has found it hard to retain experienced staff because of "weaknesses in the existing professional grading structure". Since November 1995, five solicitors have left the CSSO:

. There are weaknesses in the processes associated with personal injury cases - there is "a predisposition to litigate as opposed to settle". The possible cost to the State in terms of eventual excessive settlements and unnecessary legal costs was estimated by a previous report to run into millions of pounds.

. The infrastructure is "completely inadequate" and the office needs larger premises, better telecommunications and information technology. "No library service exists, budgetary control is largely absent, personnel and human resource management is inadequate."

. There is no conventional system of quality control.

. There is a perception that there is no time for management. Solicitors in what should be defined as managerial positions have not been trained in management, management ability or potential has not been used as a criterion for promotion, various management skills are missing from the office.

The report recommends giving the Chief State Solicitor professional and management responsibilities as well as his legal ones. These should include the provision of direction and leadership providing and controlling the efficient use of resources, systems and procedures and creating a "human resources culture" that would allow staff to realise their potential and develop their careers.

The report recommends dividing the management structure of the office into two divisions with separate sections and sub sections. The heads of divisions and sections should have a combination of professional and managerial responsibilities.

"Whilst the structure will allow general management functions to be developed it is of the utmost importance that division and section heads are only appointed if they possess the necessary management skills, are provided with adequate time to carry out the management functions, and obtain training in management where necessary."

The new structure would include sections dealing with personnel, finance, information technology and library services. The report goes on to list detailed functions for the proposed section heads. Functions for three distinct legal services divisions dealing respectively with criminal litigation, civil litigation and property and advice are also set out.

The report argues for the provision of additional personnel to the office. All vacant positions should be filled, 14 new legal services staff - including 10 assistant solicitors - and seven finance and administrative staff should be appointed. This would bring the staff complement up to 186. It proposes a regrading of solicitors in the office and notes staff and unions complain of "an inadequate and demotivating grading and career structure".

A library should be established, a modern phone system installed, quality control procedures and time recording introduced. "It is almost inconceivable that a law office which has over 100 legal services providers is operating without a library service."

It adds: "Strong leadership, structures and change management expertise will be required in order to implement these recommendations. Approval by the Attorney General's office and the Department of Finance for the necessary resources is a prerequisite to implementing other recommendations ... The CSS will require support from a competent individual on an ongoing basis to plan, control and monitor the internal changes required."

The report also lists the strengths of the office, including its deep knowledge of the working and processes of government Departments and the skill, expertise and commitment of the staff However, the focus of the report is on identifying weaknesses and recommending major change.