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Monday 29 May 2017

Mahon Tribunal creates millionaire lawyer No 17

Paul Melia and Michael Brennan

A SEVENTEENTH lawyer has become a 'tribunal millionaire' over the past year even though the Mahon Tribunal was not publicly sitting.

Imelda Higgins is the latest to join the ranks of the lawyers who have earned more than €1m from the tribunal investigating alleged planning corruption in Dublin.

She overtook the €1m mark in the past year while several other top barristers boosted their total fees, even though the tribunal last sat in public in 2008. It is understood that Ms Higgins has worked on the tribunal since 2005, using her expertise in areas including political donations and planning law.

But her earnings pale in comparison with the three barristers working at the Mahon Tribunal who have earned legal fees in excess of €5m, while six have earned more than €2m.

And the total cost of paying the 35 people who served on the tribunal's legal team since it was established in 1997 has now reached almost €50m.

The top earner is Patricia Dillon, who has been paid almost €5.6m in legal fees.

She is followed by Des O'Neill, who earned more than €5.2m, gaining fame for his relentless cross-examination of former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern at Dublin Castle. The only senior counsel kept on to work on the final stages of preparing the report was the third-highest earner, Patrick O'Neill, who was paid more than €5m.

Another high-earning barrister is Henry Murphy, the father of new Fine Gael Dublin South East TD Eoghan Murphy. He quizzed Celia Larkin about Mr Ahern's finances during the 1990s.

Senior counsel Patrick Hanratty left the Planning Tribunal in 2001 after earning €1.7m and returned to private practice.

The new figures on legal costs come after the Irish Independent revealed a massive €30m bill for day-to-day running costs at the tribunal.

The spend included €80,000 on tea, coffee and water; €70,000 on newspapers, milk and other kitchen supplies and nearly €50,000 on lunches for judges and the legal team.

This was on top of their fees -- senior counsel were paid €1,714 daily and juniors €1,143 during the first few years of the tribunal, which began sitting in 1997. In 2002 fees were hiked to €2,250 and €1,500 -- even when the tribunal was not sitting in public.

They were later cut to €2,070 and €1,380 in 2009, and to €1,760 and €1,173 the following year.

By the time it concluded its public sittings in 2008, the Mahon Tribunal had sat for 916 days and had generated 60,000 pages of evidence.

At its peak, it employed 50 staff, including legal staff, accountants, IT workers, indexers and a tipstaff (personal aide) for each of its three judges.

Some €5.8m was paid in fees in 2005 -- with more than €2.5m paid in 2010 and 2011 despite no public hearings taking place.

The total bill for the inquiry to date is €97.3m -- but the final cost is not yet known because it will have to decide whether to pay legal costs to tribunal witnesses. The first modules of the Planning Tribunal led to 92 of the 113 witnesses getting their legal costs in full -- a success rate of 81pc.

Tribunal chairman Judge Alan Mahon has estimated that the final cost will be around €247m when third-party costs are paid.

Irish Independent

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