Transparency questions raised as reasons for Edinburgh Council's £12 million legal fee bill to remain secret

The council have spent £2.5m on average each year on external legal fees since 2015.

Friday, 10th April 2020, 12:30 pm
The City Chambers in Edinburgh
The City Chambers in Edinburgh

Nearly £12 million has been spent on external legal fees by Edinburgh City Council since 2015, the Evening News can reveal.

However, the reasons for the spend including details of cases which went to court and out-of-court settlements will remain secret after the council refused to release the information.

The lack of information about the spend has raised questions over transparency, with opposition councillors labelling the refusal to release the information “really concerning”.

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The City Chambers on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh

Since 2015, the council has spent almost £2.5m per year on external legal fees, and around £150,000 on services from the Faculty of Advocates per year, costing the taxpayer more than £12.5m in total.

In total, the council has spent £11,862,612 in external legal fees, and £766,488 in Faculty of Advocates services, with a combined total spend of £12,567,543.

However, an exact breakdown on what the money was spent on will not be released due to “legal privilege”, the council claimed.

This was despite answers at March’s full council meeting which outlined the cost of two of Edinburgh most high profile cases around the Dunard Centre and Edinburgh Marina.

Council papers showed the cost of the mediation and judicial review process which lead to a legal challenge by the new St James Centre developers against proposals to build the first concert hall in the Capital being dropped in January reached just under £28,000.

Similar legal work costing more than £27,000 was also undertaken in the council’s battle to force the Scottish Government to overturn their decision to approve plans at Granton Waterfront by Edinburgh Marina Holdings.

Those plans are now part of a £1.3bn regeneration scheme for the area.

Responding to an official question by Conservative councillor John McLellan, the council also outlined the amount spent on legal advice for court hearings and tribunals.

This accounts or just over £3m of the £12m spent on external legal advice since 2015, leaving a unattributed spend of £9m.

Conservative group chairman, councillor Jason Rust, said the council’s refusal to release further information on the nature of the legal spend to the public was “really concerning” and raised questions about transparency.

He said: “It is really concerning that there is such a lack of transparency. Clearly legal costs have been incurred by the council in relation to the Dunard Concert Hall and Edinburgh Marina, there have been well publicised issues at Cameron House as well as personnel and routine regulatory matters.

“One would also anticipate court costs around debt recovery, enforcement, adults with incapacity and childcare issues.

“When such a significant sum of taxpayers money is involved, the council needs to come clean about this spend, especially at a time of immense budgetary pressures.

“The costs should be able to be broken down quite neatly, for example from internal advice to seeking counsel’s opinion to court and tribunal representation.”

However, a spokesman for the council said any information would be legally privileged.

A Council spokesperson said: “Unfortunately we can’t disclose this information as it’s legally privileged.

“The Council benefits from the expertise of its in-house legal team and from that of external solicitors and advocates.

“External advisors are instructed for a variety of reasons, including where knowledge of a specialist area of law is sought, where more capacity is required or for specific large-scale projects.

“The Council has a framework of external legal firms, through which it benefits from reduced rates, and achieves best value by seeking competitive fixed priced quotes where appropriate.”

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