Opinion: Bringing in the changes

Treasury Solicitor Jonathan Jones reflects on a year in the job, as he aims to make the Government's in-house legal arm 'consistently excellent'


By Jonathan Jones

03 Mar 2015

This is my first anniversary in the job of Treasury Solicitor. There have been some big changes in the government legal profession in recent years. Historically it has been a federation of diverse government legal teams, comprising some shared services and a number of free-standing advisory teams, with the Treasury Solicitor’s Department (TSol) at its core providing litigation and some advisory services.

Recently TSol has gone through a process of bringing more and more government legal teams into the department, with the aim of creating a stronger, more unified legal function. Putting itself in the vanguard of the Civil Service reform programme and establishing shared services.

Last year the DH, DWP and Transport teams joined, so it now includes 11 Whitehall advisory teams as well as specialist Litigation, Employment, Commercial and European law functions. A merger with the MoD legal team is planned soon. This means the department will have roughly doubled in size to about 2000 people, still mostly in London but now with a number of teams outside the capital.

As TSol is now in effect a new organisation, I thought as Treasury Solicitor and Head of the Government Legal Service, it warranted a new name. From April, the Treasury Solicitor’s Department will be called the Government Legal Department. That’s an important step in the evolution of the department.

We decided it deserved a new name to describe more clearly what we are – the Government Legal Department.

My vision is of a department which is trusted by government to provide consistently excellent and value for money services, and which is known throughout the legal profession for the quality of our legal work and provides the best possible careers and employment offer for our people.I am confident the Government Legal Department will deliver that vision.

A new larger department needed a new leadership team and new governance, so I had the privilege early on of making some key senior appointments and establishing a new (smaller) board, including three fairly new non-executive directors. In a recent review of our governance arrangements our external reviewer described us as ‘outstanding’.

The department is one of the largest legal organisations in the UK, conducting work on an immense scale, handling around 30,000 cases between 2013 and 2014. If a legal issue is important enough to get somewhere near the Prime Minister or the Cabinet Secretary, it will usually come across my desk one way or another.

That might include matters of constitutional law, national security, sensitive organisational or senior staffing issues, or big cross-cutting issues like judicial review or freedom of information.

My department has handled many major legal issues and challenges in the courts, including reforms to welfare, legal aid, financial services, immigration, same sex marriages, Ebola, the UK’s opt-out (and opt back in) to EU justice and home affairs measures and the new measures on counter-terrorism and security.

We had the referendum in Scotland, followed by a commitment to produce new draft clauses on Scottish devolution to a punishing timescale.This required a determined, joined-up effort by lawyers from across government, and I was very pleased to be in Edinburgh to hear the PM announce the publication of the new clauses just before Burns night.

My biggest thrill has been the quite exceptional range, interest and importance of the legal work.

Much of my work is of a kind you cannot do anywhere else, for example shaping and making new laws, and handling cases of ground-breaking legal and constitutional importance. What we do affects the way the country and society are run and then there’s the fascinating and rather unpredictable political climate. So the opportunity to make major changes – for the better I strongly believe – in the way we organise ourselves and do business has been an enjoyable challenge.

Advice to others leading professional organisations in Government? It’s a bit of a cliché, but I have found the most important thing is to have a really strong senior team who support you and share your overall vision, but are also capable of challenging you and bring their own skills, ideas and perspectives.

After one year in the job we are only part of the way there in terms of reforming and improving the government legal function. For now I look forward to more challenges… and changing things for the better.


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