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HSE spends €150m on legal fees

The government and the HSE are under pressure this weekend to explain the "shocking" use of €150m of taxpayers' money on legal fees to barristers and solicitors since 2007.

It has also emerged that many of the jobs were awarded without proper tendering, a breach of public sector protocols.

Former health Minister Mary Harney has been blamed by Fine Gael's Brian Hayes for allowing such amounts to be paid by the HSE to lawyers, given the recent controversies over patients on trolleys, ward closures and operation cancellations due to funding shortages.

According to official figures obtained by this newspaper, €30m of taxpayers' money went on lawyers in 2007, €36.3m in 2008, €44.5m in 2009 and €35m between January and November last year -- a total of €145.8m.

A breakdown of the 2009 figure reveals the majority of the high spend related to the Dublin mid-Leinster and Dublin north-east regions, which between them paid out almost €30m in legal fees during the year. The Dublin mid-Leinster spend in 2009 was €15.9m while the Dublin north-east spent €12.6m.

The figures show that the HSE west region spent €7,037,857 and the south region spent €6,705,866 last year on solicitors and barristers.

However, most controversially, the HSE spent over €2.3m on legal fees relating to defending the corporate actions of the HSE during 2009.

Despite being asked by the Sunday Independent, the HSE refused to furnish details of the 10 barristers and solicitors it paid most to during 2009, and also declined to include the amount paid out in court settlements last year.

The HSE also admitted that it is only now putting in place a tendering processes. In a statement, the HSE said it is currently involved at an advanced stage in the tender process for the procurement of legal services.

"Contractual negotiations with a preferred bidder are ongoing with a view to entering into a contract no earlier than March 1, 2011. It would be inappropriate to declare the historic payments made to law firms at this stage as it might have the effect of compromising the negotiations," a spokesman said.

The HSE also said it is working to implement stricter controls over the cost of its legal fees. "The Office of Legal Services has commenced the use of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms to facilitate more effective remedies and to establish protocols to enhance cooperation and consistency in the way in which the HSE interacts with third parties," the statement said.

"It will also be applying practices of corporate governance to the provision of legal services to the HSE. In this regard it will aim to improve risk management and implement more effective controls over legal expenditure," it added.

Responding to the high spend, Mr Hayes said: "These figures from the HSE are shocking. It highlights the totally dysfunctional nature of this organisation. The HSE has learnt nothing over recent years as it continues to waste millions upon millions of taxpayers' money. As patients lie on trolleys and as children a waiting for speech and language therapy for over two years, the HSE has no difficulty in forking close to €150m on legal fees in nearly four years. This is a shocking indictment of an agency which is clearly beyond control.

"What was Mary Harney doing to prevent this waste?"

Sunday Independent