Departmental Legal Services Unit
Natural Resources Canada
The Department of Justice has established dedicated departmental legal services units (DLSUs) for most government departments and agencies. These units provide client organizations with legal advice to facilitate their operations. This audit focused on the management practices of the DLSU that is serving Natural Resources Canada (NRCan).
The scope of the audit included the operations and activities of the NRCan Legal Services Unit (LSU) in the National Capital Region. The planning and on-site examination phases for this audit were carried out between June and November 2009.
The NRCan LSU exhibited many elements of an appropriate management framework for an organization of its size. The organizational objectives and priorities are well understood by its lawyers, staff, and client. The NRCan LSU has documented its long-term objectives on the NRCan Intranet Web site. Its short-term priorities are driven by the client department’s priorities. These priorities are identified through participation in NRCan management committees and ongoing interactions with the client department. The priorities are reflected in the LSU’s input to the Business and Regulatory Law Portfolio Human Resources Plan and its service plan for 2009-10 with NRCan.
The NRCan LSU has identified and assessed the significant risks it faces in achieving its objectives and has taken action to mitigate these risks. The LSU’s contribution to the Portfolio Human Resources Plan is consistent with the planned mitigation action.
Responsibilities and accountabilities in the LSU are clearly defined. The processes in place within the LSU for workload distribution and monitoring facilitate the efficient processing of client requests for legal services while maintaining service quality.
The LSU formally monitors performance against its service standards through a triennial survey of client contacts. Direct feedback is also obtained on a regular basis from NRCan’s assistant deputy ministers.
In the absence of an administrative procedures manual, the LSU’s employees rely on the Office Manager’s knowledge of departmental administrative policies and procedures to determine how to manage information and records, obtain bulk photocopying, obtain building passes, etc. A recommendation has been made that an administrative procedures manual be developed.
The LSU’s communications practices generally provide staff with the information they need to carry out their responsibilities. The communications practices and exchange and availability of information also help to ensure that consistent legal advice is provided.
There was a widespread sense among management and staff that the LSU may be under resourced. The LSU is operating with a ratio of 14 lawyers to two legal assistants. This ratio is high in comparison to other recently audited DLSUs, where the ratio was usually about four to one. Provision has been made in the budget for a third legal assistant, but we are not aware of any plans to fill this position. A recommendation has been made that the lawyer-to-support-staff ratio be reviewed.
The NRCan LSU does not have an orientation manual for new staff. Such a document would provide background documentation concerning NRCan’s programs and organization, information on the laws and regulations governing these, and key legal opinions if appropriate. It would also serve as a key depository of the corporate memory within the LSU. A recommendation has been made that a basic orientation manual for the lawyers be developed.
The LSU’s lawyers are encouraged to avail themselves of various forms of professional development. There is no formal tracking of all professional development undertaken, however. As a result, the LSU has not been reporting on the percentage of employees receiving a minimum of five days of professional development per year as required by the Department of Justice Learning Policy. A recommendation has been made that a process be implemented to track and report on all professional development taking place in the LSU.
Formal performance appraisals are only provided for the lawyers within the LSU and not for the support staff. Managers at all levels have the responsibility to provide feedback on employees’ performance. A recommendation has been made that performance appraisals and learning plans be developed on a regular basis for support staff.
The measures taken to administer the LSU’s financial resources are satisfactory. Regular reports are reviewed, reconciled, and verified. Compliance testing of financial transactions by both NRCan and the audit team found no errors.
Because of limited resources, the LSU has focused on those requests for legal services having the greatest priority. Some overtime has also been required, but in our opinion it has not been excessive. The LSU has appropriately adjusted priorities to provide a satisfactory level of legal services and remain within planned budgetary levels.
Key physical assets are protected in an appropriate manner. Access to the building where the LSU is located is controlled. All the lawyers have lockable, enclosed offices. The inventory list was not up-to-date, but NRCan has plans under development for replacing the system. The inventory list will be updated as part of that process.
The LSU relies on NRCan’s and the Department of Justice’s financial, salary management, and case management information systems for decision-making and accountability purposes. Reasonable efforts are made to validate the LSU’s data in these systems to ensure its accuracy. The information in iCase is used primarily to support requests to the client department for additional resources.
We were told that while files can be readily found, it can be hard to locate specific opinions. Differing practices are followed across the LSU with respect to who places information on the physical file and the timeliness with which this is done. A recommendation has been made that consistent electronic and print file management practices be implemented.
The NRCan LSU is making a systematic effort to archive its closed files. Prior to the arrival of the current Records Manager, some of these files had never been entered into RIMS. Three-quarters of these files have now been processed for transfer to archival storage.
Compliance with Legislation and Policies
There is compliance with key government legislation and policies including the Financial Administration Act and the Official Languages Act.
Interfaces with Other Justice Sectors
The NRCan LSU’s interfaces with other sectors of the Department of Justice are satisfactory.
Interfaces with the Client
The LSU’s client is very satisfied with the quality of the legal services provided. The 2007 survey of NRCan by the Office of Strategic Planning and Performance Measurement (SPPM) showed very high levels of client satisfaction with the LSU’s services. The client regularly consults with the LSU on files that could have a legal issue.
The management responses to the recommendations contained in this report were provided by the General Counsel and Executive Director, Natural Resources Canada, Legal Services Unit.
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