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Friday 24 March 2017

TDs slam tribunal costs as lawyers earn over €5m each

Dearbhail McDonald Legal Editor

FIVE senior counsels have been paid more than €5m each for their work on state tribunals. Two Moriarty Tribunal lawyers earned almost €10m a piece at the payments-to-politicians inquiry.

Yesterday, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) revealed that the combined cost of the Mahon, Moriarty and Morris tribunals could reach €366m. That figure may soar even further once the legal bills of witnesses -- which are unknown as yet -- are paid by the taxpayer.

The highest-paid tribunal lawyer is Jerry Healy, a senior counsel attached to the Moriarty Tribunal. He earned €9.49m. His colleague, John Coughlan, earned €9.28m.

The highest-paid female lawyer, also from the Moriarty Tribunal, was senior counsel Jacqueline O'Brien, with €6.7m.

She is followed in the earnings league by senior counsel Patricia Dillon of the Mahon Tribunal, who earned €5.59m up until the end of last year.

Desmond O'Neill, who cross-examined Bertie Ahern at the Mahon Tribunal, earned €5.279m. Mr O'Neill has since returned to private practice.

The PAC, which examined the legal fees arising from the work of the three tribunals as well as wider issue of the "excessive" cost of legal fees to the State, has claimed that the Government is treating the "very privileged" legal profession with a kid-gloves approach.

It also said that as the largest buyer of legal services, the Government was a "key driver in setting exorbitant legal fees" because of its failure to address the issue of legal costs.

The PAC estimated that the Government spent some €500m annually on legal fees without a proper competitive tendering process.

Last night, PAC chairman Bernard Allen TD said that by reforming the way legal advice is bought, millions could be saved.

"The cost to the taxpayer for these tribunals and other legal services obtained by the State is astronomical," said Mr Allen.

"Competitive tendering should be made mandatory for legal services to the State. This will see a greater number of legal service providers competing for work and lead to lower prices."

The PAC said a final estimate of the cost of the tribunals could not be achieved owing to the major uncertainty pertaining to third-party costs.

Self-regulation

The committee described these as "a black hole" and warned that the final liability to the taxpayer of the tribunals was unknown and could be unknown "for years".

It also criticised the Government for failing to rein in the costs of state tribunals.

It noted that the setting of an initial brief fee of €31,743 and €20,951 for senior and junior counsel respectively, as well as daily rates of €1,714 and €1,143, was primarily dealt with by the Department of Finance and the office of the Attorney General.

This compares to an €8,600 maximum brief fee for senior lawyers engaged by the DPP working on murder cases.

Tribunal rates were raised in 2002 to €2,250 for senior counsel, amid fears that the continuity of the tribunals would be compromised if lawyers walked off the inquiries.

The PAC said the self-regulation of the legal profession was a "significant problem".

Under the IMF/EU deal, further drawdowns on Ireland's €85bn loan depends on reform of legal costs.

The PAC said it very much regretted that it took the IMF, an external agency, to insist on the implementation of reforms of legal costs.

Irish Independent

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