Official figures reveal top public buyers of law

Sixteen Government departments racked up legal fees of more than £1m each over the last three years through the panel designed to centralise Whitehall legal spend, with JobCentre Plus emerging as the biggest spender.

The data, obtained by Legal Week through a Freedom of Information Act request, shows JobCentre Plus spent just under £11m in legal fees through the Government's legal services framework panel.

The fees were in addition to those of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), which spent £6.4m over the three-year period, making it the fourth-largest spender. Both JobCentre Plus and DWP took advice from firms including Field Fisher Waterhouse, DLA Piper, Hogan Lovells, Simmons & Simmons and Pinsent Masons on matters such as employment tribunal defence, procurement and commercial contracts.

The Department for Transport (DfT) and HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) both spent just over £9m, to come in second and third place respectively, with the Highways Agency, part of the DfT, the fifth-largest customer for the panel at £5.3m. Legal fees for the DfT were bumped up over the period due to several large projects, including Crossrail and the Metronet administration.

Linklaters was among the firms advising the DfT in relation to both of these matters, while other firms securing mandates on other projects included Eversheds and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer.

A spokesperson for DWP, which has responsibility for JobCentre Plus, said: "The department uses a range of legal firms that are either procured through open competition directly by the department or via the framework. The legal service framework is currently used mainly for smaller contracts. The Government's approach to commissioning legal services is under review to ensure we are getting value for money and expertise."

Other data obtained by Legal Week revealed the breakdown by law firm of legal spend through the 48-firm super panel (formerly known as Catalist) over the three financial years beginning 2007-08. Field Fisher, Pinsents and Freshfields were the biggest beneficiaries of Government spend through the panel, billing £15.8m, £14.7m and £12.1m respectively over the three years.

The Government is in the process of reviewing the panel, which has come under significant criticism from member law firms for unfair distribution of work. The current panel is due to expire in June.

One partner at a panel firm said: "[The framework] is used frequently but not effectively. There are too many firms on the panel. This is highly inefficient for Government. It's also frustrating for law firms particularly as there is a small number of firms such as ours that end up doing the work."

By Sofia Lind

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