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Lawyers made their fortunes as questioning stretched on

AROUND 17 lawyers have become 'tribunal millionaires' due to the epic length of the Mahon Tribunal.

Three have earned legal fees in excess of €5m, while six have earned more than €2m.

But in its report yesterday, the Mahon Tribunal launched an impassioned defence of the 15 years it took to conclude its work into the "notoriously difficult" issue of planning corruption.

"The tribunal very much doubts that it could have effectively investigated those acts in any less time than it ultimately took," it said.

It added that it had "exceptionally wide" terms of reference to investigate any potentially corrupt acts in the planning process. And it said that because there were so many, it took an "extraordinary amount of time" to inquire into them.

It also had to "divert resources" to deal with 32 different legal challenges.

The total cost of the tribunal so far has been €97m but the tribunal has admitted that the final cost will be up to €300m when legal costs of all witnesses are paid.

The tribunal's best paid barrister was senior counsel Patricia Dillon, who has been paid almost €5.6m in legal fees. She is followed by senior counsel Des O'Neill, who earned €5.2m. But the only senior counsel kept on to work on the final stages of preparing its report was the third-highest earner, Patrick Quinn, who was paid more than €5m.

The previous Fianna Fail-led Government had never anticipated when the Planning Tribunal was set up in 1997 that its work would continue for the next 15 years.

It agreed to pay the tribunal's senior barristers €2,250 a day and its junior barristers €1,500 a day -- even when the tribunal was not sitting.

The fees were finally reduced by a total of 16pc due to Budget cutbacks in 2009 and in 2010. That left the final daily rates at €1,760 per day for senior counsel and €1,173 per day for junior. At its peak, the tribunal employed 50 staff, including legal staff, accountants, IT workers and a tipstaff (personal aide) for each of its three judges.

The tribunal acknowledged that the costs had been a "frequent matter of comment in the press" but said that there had been many benefits. These included the €51.2m recovered by the Revenue Commissioners and the Criminal Assets Bureau as a result of the tribunal's revelations.

In its report yesterday, the tribunal said it was considering getting non-cooperative witnesses to pay their own costs and the tribunal costs as well -- which could be financially ruinous for them.

If the remaining 400 tribunal witnesses were to be awarded their costs in full, or even part of their costs, it could add hundreds of millions to the final bill.

Irish Independent