Child agency Tusla pays out over €28m a year in legal costs
Fees for children's guardians and lawyers are biggest expense
The child and family agency, Tusla, paid more than €28m in legal costs last year. One of the biggest costs was guardian services for children, with 29 individuals and companies sharing €7.5m in fees, on a €125-an-hour flat rate.
Tusla also paid 23 law firms fees of €12.5m over two years. The agency paid €1.1m of this to Arthur Cox and its consultancy arm, Arthur Cox Consultants Ltd, for overseeing and discharging fees to Tusla's panel of 23 law firms around the country.
The legal firm paid most by Tusla was Byrne Wallace, which earned €3.2m in fees, followed by Mason Hayes Curran, which earned fees of €2.4m. Comyn Kelleher Tobin was paid €1.6m.
While the figures show that Tusla managed to reduce its overall legal bill to below €30m for the first time since its creation, the agency is likely to incur extra costs this year as a result of the Disclosures Tribunal.
The tribunal is investigating how a false allegation of child abuse against Garda whistleblower, Maurice McCabe, remained on a Tusla file after the error had been pointed out. The agency's legal costs have come under close scrutiny after they peaked at €36m in 2014.
Tusla, which has its own in-house legal department, is currently trying to reduce its legal costs by setting up its own internal system to take on the oversight of the legal panel.
A spokesperson said included in the €28.3m legal costs are "our Member Firms legal fees, GAL fees, GAL Solicitor and Barristers' fees, parents, solicitors and barrister fees, legal disbursements such as witness expenses, stenography and settlements".
Guardians who provide a voice for children in court cases - known as Guardian Ad Litems (GALs) - continue to be one of the most expensive outlays for Tusla.
The service is regarded as essential to ensuring the child's wishes are heard in legal proceedings. The function is traditionally carried out by social workers who are appointed as GALs by the court. A number of companies now specialise in providing the service.
The children's charity, Barnardo's, received the lion's share of fees paid by Tusla, earning €3.4m. Independent Guardian Ad Litem, set up in 2014, earned fees of €1.8m.
Four firms were paid fees in excess of €200,000 for the service; Ceili O'Callaghan Consultancy was paid €239,482; and Child Forensic Services received €237,560 in fees.
Individuals also earned substantial fees. Renee Hanley was paid €165,799 for her services. Maeve Drummey, a former HSE social worker, was paid fees of €138,237.
The rates paid to Guardian ad Litem came under scrutiny in January at a Public Accounts Committee hearing addressed by the Comptroller and Auditor General.
The committee heard that it had been paid hourly fees ranging from €85 to €111 an hour plus €40 to €46 an hour for travel time. But in 2015, Tusla negotiated a professional flat fee of €125 an hour plus VAT, dispensed with the travel payment and replaced it with mileage set at civil service rates.
The Comptroller and Auditor General called for greater regulation of the service in a report two years ago, saying that Tusla, as paymaster, could not monitor costs because there was no complete record of the number of cases to which guardians were appointed, or the average hours worked per case.
The Government has announced legislation to provide for a national service for Guardians ad Litem that will set minimum standards for qualifications, provide regulation and monitor performance.
The Government procurement office has invited firms and individuals providing the service to submit proposals as part of "market consultation".
Tusla was criticised in recent weeks by the ombudsman over its handling of complaints, with long delays in dealing with allegations of abuse and, in some cases, the rights of those accused of abuse were breached.