THE state solicitor for north Kildare and parts of north Wicklow and south Dublin told the High Court yesterday he believed he was entitled to continue in the position until he was 70, provided he was medically fit to do so. The State is insisting he leaves the service at age 65 as a matter of public policy.
Charles E Coonan, who is challenging Attorney General Michael McDowell's decision not to continue his appointment beyond January 31 next, told Miss Justice Mella Carroll he satisfactorily carried out his functions since his appointment to the post in 1974 and there had been no dispute about this.
He expected to continue in the position after 65 years, on a year-by-year basis until age 70, subject to evidence of good health.
But when he spoke to former chief state solicitor, Michael Buckley about this expectation, he was told he could not continue. Later he spoke to the Director of Public Prosecutions, Mr James Hamilton; and the AG, Mr McDowell about his position. The DPP told him there was a new policy on the retirement of state solicitors at age 65 in a bid to give younger people an opportunity to do the job.
Mr McDowell thanked him for his years of service but said he could not continue because of the new policy. But four other cases of state solicitors having contracts extended beyond 65 years were mentioned.
He was informed by the AG that although he was 65 on November 30 last, he was being given a two month extension to January 31, 2001. Mr McDowell said this was the best he could do for him.
As a state solicitor, he received no pension and could only expect a modest gratuity of around £19,000 to £20,000 based on his years of service.
Mr Colm Condon SC, for Mr Coonan, said the AG was denying any entitlement by his client to continue his employment with the State until 70 and was insisting the retirement age was 65.
It was claimed by the defence, he added, that the decision to retire all state solicitors at 65 as a matter of public policy was taken by former AG David Byrne now an EU Commissioner and continued by Mr McDowell who became AG in July, 1999.
Mr Louis Dockery, chief state solicitor for 15 years up to February, 1993, said his understanding and recollection was that all State Solicitors who reached 65 and who applied for an extension of their contract, provided they were able to furnish certificates of good health, received these extensions without exception.
Although it was the AG who appointed State Solicitors, he (witness) in speaking to all new appointees informed them that all who applied for extensions beyond 65 received them.
Mr Michael D Murray, Limerick State Solicitor and President of the State Solicitors Association, said up to recently the procedure was that custom and practice was to renew contracts on an annual basis up to 70 years.
Both the AG and the DPP who were in court for most yesterday's proceedings are expected to give evidence today.