Saturday 27 December 2014

Now Sligo taxpayers face €10m bill after failed court action on Lissadell

Published 04/05/2014 | 02:30

Edward Walsh and Constance Cassidy.
Lissadell House

The final legal bill for the Lissadell estate rights of way fiasco could end up at €10m, the Sunday Independent has learnt.

It means the people of Sligo will have to find €40,000 for each metre of the 263 metres of public rights of way through the estate eventually granted by the Supreme Court after a five-year legal battle in the High and Supreme Courts.

Sligo County Council took the case for 24-hour-a-day public access over 5.2km of roads inside the estate, including a pathway through the front porch of the historic house, but lost resoundingly.

It means that Sligo taxpayers will not only have to pay all the council's legal bill, but also 75 per cent of the costs incurred by Lissadell's owners, Edward Walsh and Constance Cassidy, who were forced to close the estate to the public – with a further loss of millions to the local tourist economy.

Government sources told the Sunday Independent that the Department of the Environment would not bail out the council and the local authority would have to meet the bill from its own resources.

At the time the litigation was initiated, more than 48,000 people visited the estate and gardens each year and visitor numbers were growing by the month.

Some 25 full and part time jobs were lost as a result of the closure.

The decision to mount the court action is major issue on the doorsteps as local councillors seek re-election.

And sources close to the Walsh / Cassidy family say last week's Special Meeting of the Council has done little to encourage them to reopen the estate as a tourist attraction.

In his report to councillors, the new Sligo county manager Ciaran Hayes said that if the issue of costs was not agreed, it may be referred to the taxing master and could take up to two years to finalise.

He claimed that early in the 58-day High Court case the council had tried to reduce its exposure and had made an offer aimed at reaching a settlement, but this was not accepted.

In a letter sent to councillors, the manager said there was a belief the council had initiated the legal proceedings. "It did not. Indeed it is clear from the documentation that the council went to extensive lengths to avoid litigation with many and varied attempts made in this regard," he wrote to councillors.

In response, the owners, Ms Cassidy and Mr Walsh said in the written statement: "It is clear that they knew precisely what they were doing and that they intended from the first to force us into litigation."

They pointed to legal advice received by the council in the early stages of the legal battle, which advised the local authority: "It will inevitably lead to legal proceedings but it would be strategically advantageous for the Council if the Walshs were the Plaintiffs not the Council."

A source close to the owners told the Sunday Independent that previous estimates of a final legal bill of some €6m may be too low.

"It could be as high as €10m. Given the scale of the costs involved it may be a matter for the Dail Public Accounts Committee to investigate," they said.

In their written response to last week's Special Meeting of the council, Mr Walsh and Ms Cassidy pointed out that as far back as 2009, more than 1,000 people from the Maugherow area, which surrounds the estate, petitioned Sligo County Council to stop the case.

"Not only were they ignored, the council refused to accept the petition... What has been achieved? A waste of five years, a waste of money, a waste of resources, a waste of jobs and a waste of tourism opportunities," they said.

Sunday Independent

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