Why did Wirral Council spend £48,384 on a London-based barrister in benefits battle with landlord?

Why did Wirral Council spend £48,384 on a London-based barrister in benefits battle with landlord?

                                                          

ICO Information Commissioner's Office logo
ICO Information Commissioner’s Office logo

For those who don’t remember Wirral Council’s motto is "by faith and foresight" and last night’s meeting of Wirral Council’s Audit and Risk Management Commmittee (which you can watch in full by following that link) had a number of comments and queries by councillors about why when Wirral Council seeks legal advice from outside third parties, the usual procurement rules don’t apply.

By strange coincidence, that very day and an hour before the Audit and Risk Management Committee started, Wirral Council finally responded (in part) to a Freedom of Information Act request of mine made on the 23rd March 2015 for a two-page fee note for the services of a barrister called Miss Jennifer Richards QC.

Many justifications were made at the Audit and Risk Management Committee meeting for Wirral Council’s legal expenditure, such as paying for the best advice. Miss Jennifer Richards QC’s services came with a price tag of £48,384 so I’m not surprised that Wirral Council spent 8 months wasting my time and theirs by arguing about whether I should have access to this (until the Information Commissioner’s Office issued decision notice FS50585536) which I can summarise in the following sentence.

Stop being silly Wirral Council and just give John a copy of the invoices within 35 days (or appeal within 28 days) otherwise it may be dealt with as contempt of court)!

Although this may seem for a small amount of legal expenditure in the grand scheme of things, it’s just one of a series of legal expenses for Wirral Council in a case that ended up in the Court of Appeal and is in some ways connected to the Anna Klonowski Associates/Martin Morton issues and Wirral Council’s Department of Adult Social Services.

You can read that final Court of Appeal judgement online for yourself ([2012] AACR 37, [2012] EWCA Civ 84, [2012] PTSR 1221, [2012] WLR(D) 31), but this was an appeal from an earlier decision to the Upper Tribunal of the Administrative Appeals Chamber, see [2011] UKUT 44 (AAC).

As referred to in that later decision it was about “a protracted dispute between Salisbury Independent Living (“SIL”) and Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council (“the local authority”) concerning housing benefit claimed by SIL to be due to its tenants and former tenants.

I have mentioned in a question at a public meeting to a councillor before that there is a cost to the public purse in legal expenses for Wirral Council not resolving issues and then these matters ending up being adjudicated by the courts.

In the interests of openness and transparency I am reproducing the invoice supplied below in full (the scan with bits blacked out by Wirral Council is of a rather poor quality).

Thirty Nine Essex Street (or 39 Essex Chambers) is the name of the London-based chamber of barristers. Weightmans is a firm of solicitors that does a lot of work for Wirral Council.

DX stands for document exchange (it’s a system that legal practices use for exchanging documents). DWP stands for Department for Work and Pensions. It seems this invoice is for the earlier Upper Tribunal stage of the legal proceedings (I hate to think what the total legal expenditure comes to for this whole case as that decision was then appealed by Wirral Council to the Court of Appeal).

Yes there are typos in the invoice (which I’ve left in the copy below). If I’ve made any mistakes in typing it up compared to the original please leave a comment pointing out where I’ve made a mistake.

In converting it from print to HTML I’ve tried to keep the formatting as close to the printed invoice as possible.


ThirtyNine
ESSEX STREET

LONDON WC2R 3AT

Telephone: 0208 7832 1111 Facsimile: 020 7353 3978 DX: LDE 298

E mail: clerks@39essex.com

Professional Fees of Miss Jennifer Richards Q.C
VAT Registration No: 606103782



DX: 718100 LIVERPOOL 16
Weightmans LLP (Liverpool)
India Buildings
Water Street
Liverpool
L2 0GA
England
 Your Ref:          MHL/186279/97
Case Ref:          174541
Page: 1/2


Various tenants of Salisbury Independent Living -v- Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council – Upper Tier Tribunal

Court: Upper Tribunal CH/1528/2012



DateDescription of WorkFees VAT
27 Feb 2012Drafting application for permission to appeal from First tier Tribunal to Upper Tribunal£1,650.00330.00
03 Apr 2012Drafting Grounds of Appeal to Upper Tribunal
 
£2,200.00440.00
04 Jul 2012Perusal and Consideration of various documents, emails, correspondence etc and advising by telephone£1,650.00330.00
04 Sep 2012Perusal and Consideration of submissions of Department for work and Pensions filed in support of Upper Tribunal appeal and adsvising by telephone£600.00120.00
06 Sep 2012Preparation for and Advising by Telephone re order of XXXXXXXXXXXX DWP and progress of Upper Tribunal£70.0014.00
10 Sep 2012Perusal and Consideration of draft directions and drafting position statement and further directions for Upper Tribunal = 4 hours£1,100.00220.00
13 Sep 2012Preparation For and Attending Hearing
 
£2,500500.00
25 Oct 2012Between 18th October and today’s date considering bundles of evidence and identifying documents for inclusion in the bundle for the Upper Tribunal£3,000.00600.00
31 Dec 2012Reviewing Trial bundle and drafting skeleton argument
 
£6,325.001265.00
07 Feb 2013Perusal and Consideration of transcripts FTT proceedings and proposed amendments/ corrections
 
£4,125.00825.00

     Note: items marked ‘*’ are previously unbilled




















Rate Fees V.A.T. TOTAL FEES C/Fwd C/Fwd
20.00% £40320.00 £8064.00 TOTAL VAT C/Fwd
TOTAL DUE C/Fwd
Rendered on 21 Feb 2013, 22 Feb 2013, 05 Mar 2013, 28 Mar 2013, 01 May 2013, 03 May 2013, 13 Jun 2013
THIS IS NOT A TAX INVOICE
 
04 Jul 2013
 

Please make payment to the following account: XXXXXXXXXXXX

XXXXXXXXXXXX
XXXXXXXXXXXX
We also accept payment by cheque to XXXXXXXXXXXX
Please quote case number and barrister name on BACS payment and notify us of bank tranXXXXXXXXXXXX



ThirtyNine
ESSEX STREET

LONDON WC2R 3AT

Telephone: 0208 7832 1111 Facsimile: 020 7353 3978 DX: LDE 298

E mail: clerks@39essex.com

Professional Fees of Miss Jennifer Richards Q.C
VAT Registration No: 606103782



DX: 718100 LIVERPOOL 16
Weightmans LLP (Liverpool)
India Buildings
Water Street
Liverpool
L2 0GA
England
 Your Ref:          MHL/186279/97
Case Ref:          174541
Page: 2/2


Various tenants of Salisbury Independent Living -v- Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council – Upper Tier Tribunal

Court: Upper Tribunal CH/1528/2012



DateDescription of WorkFees VAT
25 Feb 2013Preparation For and Attending Hearing
Preparation beofre trial 30 hours
Preparation after court 4 hours
Full day in court
£12,500.002500.00
26 Feb 2013Refresher
Ful;l day in court
Preparation 4 hours after court
£2,000.00400.00
27 Feb 2013Refresher
Full day in court
Preparation 1 hour
£2,000.00400.00
04 Sep 2012Perusal and Consideration of Respondents’ Post Hearing Note and Drafting Note in Response
 
£600.00120.00
     Note: items marked ‘*’ are previously unbilled




















Rate Fees V.A.T. TOTAL FEES £40,320.00 £8,064.00
20.00% £40320.00 £8064.00 TOTAL VAT £8,064.00
TOTAL DUE £48,384.00
Rendered on 21 Feb 2013, 22 Feb 2013, 05 Mar 2013, 28 Mar 2013, 01 May 2013, 03 May 2013, 13 Jun 2013
THIS IS NOT A TAX INVOICE
 
04 Jul 2013
 

Please make payment to the following account: XXXXXXXXXXXX

XXXXXXXXXXXX
XXXXXXXXXXXX
We also accept payment by cheque payable to XXXXXXXXXXXX
Please quote case number and barrister name on BACS payment and notify us of bank transfer byXXXXXXXXXXXX

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Why did Merseytravel spend £2,775 on a "Parliamentary Reception"?

Why did Merseytravel spend £2,775 on a “Parliamentary Reception”?

Why did Merseytravel spend £2,775 on a “Parliamentary Reception”?

                                                 

Below is an invoice from the House of Commons to Merseytravel for £2,775.

Merseytravel invoice House of Commons £2775 7th May 2014
Merseytravel invoice House of Commons £2775 7th May 2014

Sadly the invoice doesn’t state a lot other than Ms Louise Ellman MP was the sponsoring MP. To find out what the room booking was for is better explained in an invoice from Bircham Dyson Bell (see below).

Merseytravel invoice Bircham Dyson Bell £2298.95 30th June 2014 Page 1 of 2
Merseytravel invoice Bircham Dyson Bell £2298.95 30th June 2014 Page 1 of 2
Merseytravel invoice Bircham Dyson Bell £2298.95 30th June 2014 Page 2 of 2
Merseytravel invoice Bircham Dyson Bell £2298.95 30th June 2014 Page 2 of 2

As you can see from the pages of the invoice above Bircham Dyson Bell charged Merseytravel £425.50 + VAT to attend a parliamentary reception on the 25th June 2014 plus £327.99 + VAT in travel expenses.

I’ll leave it to readers to comment on whether they think Merseytravel being charging £55.50 + VAT by Bircham Dyson Bell to write an email is reasonable in these times of public sector cutbacks.

Next is a “strictly private and confidential” matter. In fact so strictly private and confidential the invoice for £1,867.80 from Weightmans below only specifies that it is for “Matter number 44 Re professional services”.

Merseytravel invoice Weightmans £1867.80 27th June 2014 Page 1 of 2
Merseytravel invoice Weightmans £1867.80 27th June 2014 Page 1 of 2

But as anyone me, I like demystifying such matters, so let me let Weightmans explain what this invoice is really about.

Merseytravel invoice Weightmans £1867.80 27th June 2014 Page 2 of 2
Merseytravel invoice Weightmans £1867.80 27th June 2014 Page 2 of 2

In case you can’t read the above I’ll quote the pertinent bit here.

Strictly private and confidential
Employment advice

Please find enclosed a bill of costs for work carried out by myself and Simon Goacher in relation to issues surrounding the Chief Executive and Director contracts.

I have not put any detail of the work on the bill or identified what it is for reasons of confidentiality. However, there is a breakdown of the work done so far on this matter attached for your attention.

I assume that matters are currently progressing satisfactorily but if you do require any further advice when the drafting is completed then please do not hesitate to contact either myself or Simon Goacher.

Thank you for your kind instructions in this matter, it is always good to work with you.

Kind regards,

Yours sincerely

Bernadette Worthington
Partner
For and on behalf of Weightmans LLP”

Going back to the original theme of political engagement is an invoice below from Kenyon Fraser for £29,160. This is for work on Merseytravel’s campaign to have a high-speed rail connection to Liverpool.

Merseytravel invoice Kenyon Fraser £29160 28th July 2014
Merseytravel invoice Kenyon Fraser £29160 28th July 2014

Continuing on lobbying but this time at party political conferences is an invoice for £11,429.96 for “PTEG Political engagement at Party Conferences and events each PTE see attached”.

Merseytravel invoice Nexus £11429.96 12th March 2015 Political engagement at party conferences
Merseytravel invoice Nexus £11429.96 12th March 2015 Political engagement at party conferences

Finally, here is an invoice for £811.20 from Key Travel for train tickets for travel from Liverpool Lime Street to London Euston. So what’s so unusual about that? Well the passengers are just listed as UNISON and it’s Merseytravel that have paid the invoice (I hope the costs were charged back to UNISON)!

Merseytravel invoice Key Travel £811.20 train fares London to Liverpool
Merseytravel invoice Key Travel £811.20 train fares London to Liverpool

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Why did Merseytravel spend £33,781.20 last year with Veale Wasbrough Vizards about its move to Mann Island?

Why did Merseytravel spend £33,781.20 last year with Veale Wasbrough Vizards about its move to Mann Island?

Why did Merseytravel spend £33,781.20 last year with Veale Wasbrough Vizards about its move to Mann Island?

                                                

I went to a meeting of the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority’s Audit Committee yesterday and if you wish you can view the video of that meeting below. The agenda and reports for that meeting is on Merseytravel’s website.

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Liverpool City Region Combined Authority Audit Committee meeting 12th May 2015

What did occur to me after the meeting finished was that since the Local Government Transparency Code applies to the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, that Merseytravel (which is now part of the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority) would be required to publish a list of payments made over £500 each month on its website.

Unlike Wirral Council and the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority, who also publish comma separated values files of the same information (which can then be sorted in a spreadsheet) Merseytravel just publish this information as PDF files.

Links to each of these files which cover the last financial year are below.

Merseytravel payments over £500 Period 1 – 01 April 2014 to 27 April 2014

Merseytravel payments over £500 Period 02 – 28 April 2014 to 25 May 2014

Ed – added on 22/5/2015 – see edit note below for why Merseytravel payments over £500 Period 03 26 May 2014 to 22 June 2014

Merseytravel payments over £500 Transactions Period 04 26-06-2014 To 20-07-2014

Merseytravel payments over £500 Transactions Period 05 21-07-2014 To 17-08-2014

Merseytravel payments over £500 Expenditure August September 2014

Merseytravel payments over £500 expenditure September October 2014

Merseytravel payments over £500 Expenditure October November 2014

Merseytravel payments over £500 Expenditure November to December 2014

Merseytravel payments over £500 expenditure December 2014 to January 2015

Merseytravel payments over £500 Expenditure 5th January to 1st February

Merseytravel payments over £500 Expenditure 2nd February to 1st March 2015

Merseytravel payments over £500 Expenditure 2nd March to 31st March 2015

If you’re observant, you’ll have noticed a gap for the month from the 26th May 2014 to the 25th June 2014. I’ve emailed Merseytravel to ask for the missing month of payments. Ed – 22/5/2015 – Merseytravel got back in touch with me on the 21st May informing me the missing month had now been put on their website, so it is now linked to above. The missing month includes another payment of £680 made to Veale Wasbrough Vizards for legal costs to do with the HQ relocation that was not available to me when originally writing this article.

However the other 11 months make for interesting reading.

There are a number of payments to a Veale Wasbrough Vizards (which is a Bristol based firm of solicitors) relating to Merseytravel’s controversial headquarters move from Hatton Gardens to Mann Island.

1 Mann Island (Liverpool City Region Combined Authority)
1 Mann Island (Merseytravel’s new headquarters)

Here’s a list of the payments made to Veale Wasbrough Vizards:

VEALE WASBROUGH VIZARDS 21/3/2014 Legal Fees S-7108- HQ Relocation £720
VEALE WASBROUGH VIZARDS 30/4/2014 Legal Fees S-7108- HQ Relocation £862.50
VEALE WASBROUGH VIZARDS 30/4/2014 Legal Fees S-7108- HQ Relocation £1,200
VEALE WASBROUGH VIZARDS 23/4/2014 Legal Fees S-7108- HQ Relocation £4,342.25
VEALE WASBROUGH VIZARDS 18/8/2014 Legal Fees S-7108- HQ Relocation £1,169.89
VEALE WASBROUGH VIZARDS 23/9/2014 Legal Fees S-7108- HQ Relocation £2,084.00
VEALE WASBROUGH VIZARDS 23/10/2014 Legal Fees S-7108- HQ Relocation £648
VEALE WASBROUGH VIZARDS 18/11/2014 Legal Fees S-7108- HQ Relocation £10,315.20
VEALE WASBROUGH VIZARDS 18/12/2014 Other Contractor 15 S-7116- HQ – Direct Costs £7,600
VEALE WASBROUGH VIZARDS 22/12/2014 Legal Fees S-7108- HQ Relocation £4,839.36
        Total £33,781.20
           

Payments are also still being made to Bircham Dyson Bell as you can see below. The Liverpool Echo reported back in 2012 how £1.7 million was paid by Merseytravel to Bircham Dyson Bell without the work being put out to tender.

BIRCHAM DYSON BELL 28/3/2014 Court Fees S-2031 Legal and Committee Team £1,050.90
BIRCHAM DYSON BELL 28/3/2014 Specialist Fees K-2501 L.A. Subscriptions etc. £754.70
BIRCHAM DYSON BELL 29/4/2014 Court Fees S-2031 Legal and Committee Team £1,362.10
BIRCHAM DYSON BELL 30/6/2014 Consultants Fees R-0200 Rolling Stock Programme £1,915.79
BIRCHAM DYSON BELL 19/2/2015 Consultants Fees K-2501 L.A. Subscriptions etc. £1,665.50
BIRCHAM DYSON BELL 27/11/2012 Consultants Fees K-2501 L.A. Subscriptions etc. £7,427.50
BIRCHAM DYSON BELL 20/5/2013 Consultants Fees K-2501 L.A. Subscriptions etc. £7,800.00
BIRCHAM DYSON BELL 25/2/2015 Consultants Fees R-0200 Rolling Stock Programme £5,210.89
        Total £27,187.38
           

Merseytravel also paid £977.50 to Sara Bradbury in October 2014 for “Counsels Fees”.

A number of insurance payments were made by Merseytravel with compensation given as the reason.

ROYAL & SUN ALLIANCE 16/5/2014 Compensation – Public Liability S-2101 Ins – General £7,008
ROYAL & SUN ALLIANCE 18/7/2014 Compensation – Public Liability S-2101 Ins – General £2,717.00
ROYAL & SUN ALLIANCE 14/8/2014 Compensation Public Liability S-2101 Ins – General £8,500.00
ROYAL & SUN ALLIANCE 25/7/2014 Compensation Misc S-2101 Ins – General £11,575.00
THOMAS COOPER 8/8/2014 Compensation Misc S-2101 Ins – General £7,300.00
MERCURY LEGAL LLP 18/12/2014 Compensation Employers Liability S-2101 Ins – General £7,182.17
ROYAL & SUN ALLIANCE 18/12/2014 Compensation Public Liability S-2101 Ins – General £16,790.00
        Total £61,072.17
           

There was a payment for £507 to Weightmans LLP for an invoice dated 31st March 2014 for “specialist services”. Merseytravel also paid five amounts (£3,800, £2,600, £4,400, £750 and £2,145) to a firm of solicitors called Davies Wallis Foyster LLP for invoices in 2014 for the services of a solicitor.

Two payments of £15,115 and £15,590 were made to Royal & Sun Alliance for invoices dated 27th August 2014 and the 3rd December 2014 for the costs of external 3rd party solicitors.

Robert Jackson Solicitors charged £2,000 in an invoice dated 13th February 2015 for legal costs associated with an insurance claim, in the same month Merseytravel paid £4,812 to CS Cooper C/O Collins Long Solicitors which was again for legal costs to do with an insurance claim.

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EXCLUSIVE: Wirral Council spent £16,412.04 on legal advice for Birkenhead Town Centre regeneration

EXCLUSIVE: Wirral Council spent £16,412.04 on legal advice for Birkenhead Town Centre regeneration

EXCLUSIVE: Wirral Council spent £16,412.04 on legal advice for Birkenhead Town Centre regeneration

                                                 

Indicative illustration of Neptune Development Limited's masterplan for Birkenhead Town Centre
Indicative illustration of Neptune Development Limited’s masterplan for Birkenhead Town Centre

Invoices published below for the first time today show that Wirral Council spent £16,412.04 with Weightmans on legal advice on proposals for redevelopment of Birkenhead Town Centre. Advice was given by Weightmans to Wirral Council on the preferred development agreement (later referred to as a lock out agreement) with developers Neptune Developments Limited.

Wirral Council’s Cabinet agreed last month to consult staff at Europa Pools, which might be relocated as part of the regeneration proposals.

Wirral Council invoice Weightmans £3,328.32 29th July 2013
Wirral Council invoice Weightmans £3,328.32 29th July 2013
Wirral Council invoice Weightmans £4,482 2nd April 2013
Wirral Council invoice Weightmans £4,482 2nd April 2013
Wirral Council invoice Weightmans £735.48 30th August 2013
Wirral Council invoice Weightmans £735.48 30th August 2013
Wirral Council invoice Weightmans £960 8th October 2013
Wirral Council invoice Weightmans £960 8th October 2013
Wirral Council invoice Weightmans £1929.60 28th June 2013
Wirral Council invoice Weightmans £1929.60 28th June 2013
Wirral Council invoice Weightmans £4976.64 27th March 2013
Wirral Council invoice Weightmans £4976.64 27th March 2013

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Why did Wirral Council not check an invoice from Weightmans for £2,185.20 was correct before paying it?

Why did Wirral Council not check an invoice from Weightmans for £2,185.20 was correct before paying it?

Why did Wirral Council not check an invoice from Weightmans for £2,185.20 was correct before paying it?

                                                                

Wirral Council invoice Weightmans £2185.20 29th April 2013
Wirral Council invoice Weightmans £2185.20 29th April 2013

Above is an invoice from Weightmans to Wirral Council for £2,185.20. However it doesn’t add up. If the hours part is to be believed then these are the real figures:

Graeme Creer (GCR Partner) 13.8 hours @ £150/hour = £2,070
Simon Goacher (SIG Partner) 0.6 hours @ £150/hour = £90
Morris Hill (MHL Associate) 0.5 hours @ £120/hour = £60

+ VAT (20%) = £444

Total: £2,664

However the invoice is only for £2,185.20.

As the “Certified correct for payment” signature is blacked out, you can’t tell who at Wirral Council just paid it without scrutinising whether it was correct or not.

So perhaps somebody leave a comment answering are employees at Wirral Council supposed to check invoices are correct before paying them?

In Wirral Council’s constitution it specifies the following under “Financial Regulations”.

5.3.2 The key controls for ordering and paying for work, goods and services are:-

(v) payments are made to the correct person/supplier, for the correct amount and are properly recorded, regardless of the payment method;

5.3.5 Chief Officers are responsible for ensuring that all goods and services are properly ordered, received and paid for in accordance with Guidelines for Financial Systems.

Quite what the mysterious “Guidelines for Financial Systems” are I don’t know. The Chief Officer for legal expenditure would be Surjit Tour, although it’s clearly not his signature on the invoice.

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