Revealed: The millions paid by the State to barristers and law firms and where the fees went
The State paid at least €221m in fees to the legal professions last year, an investigation by the Irish Independent has found.
Records gathered from over 220 public bodies, the vast majority of which are Government-funded, reveal the considerable extent the State's spending on legal services.
Our investigation revealed how one firm, Mason Hayes & Curran, earned almost €10m in fees in 2016 for work on behalf of the State.
Solicitors' firms in Ireland are not required to publish accounts as they are partnerships rather than limited companies, while barristers are under no obligation to publicly disclose their earnings. However, using the Freedom of Information Act and publicly available data it has been possible to create a comprehensive picture of what was paid by public bodies for legal services and to whom.
Although the requests revealed payments totalling €221m, the full costs of legal services to the State is likely to be even higher as the figures do not include fees paid by commercial semi-State bodies, which are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.
The sums also do not include third-party legal costs claimed by firms representing clients in legal actions against the State.
Nevertheless, the data raises questions not only over the level of fees being paid, but also the level of competition for work on behalf of Government departments and other bodies.
Work carried out for the State was dominated by a relatively small number of practices, with 22 different law firms earning €1m or more from public contracts or State-funded criminal law work. Meanwhile, 32 barristers earned in excess of €300,000 each representing State interests or doing criminal prosecution or defence work.
Twenty State bodies spent above €1m on legal services last year.
Outside of the criminal and civil legal aid schemes, which accounted for €58.9m in fees, the highest level of spending was by the State Claims Agency, the arm of the National Treasury Management Agency, which handles claims against State bodies. It spent €24.7m on legal advice and representation last year, with €15.2m paid to law firms and €9.46m to barristers.
But over €10m of these fees were shared by just five firms: Mason Hayes & Curran (€3m), Hayes Solicitors (€3m), Ronan Daly Jermyn (€2.28m), Comyn Kelleher Tobin (€1.3m), and Doyle Solicitors (€953,191).
Similarly, a small number of barristers dominated the State Claims Agency fees list, with four earning in excess of €500,000. They were Emily Egan SC (€994,535), Declan Buckley SC (€886,940), Adrienne Egan SC (€596,858) and Eoin McCullough SC (€503,391).
The law firms and barristers were chosen for work after tendering for inclusion on a panel.
The agency defended the scale of the fees, insisting the tendering process had driven down costs, with the average legal fee per resolved case falling from €27,000 to €13,000 between 2013 and last year.
However, the chairman of the Dáil Public Accounts Committee, Seán Fleming, said the State needed to examine whether it was feasible to use more in-house legal services to cut costs further.
The next biggest spending agency was Tusla, which paid €14m in fees to law firms and barristers last year. It paid €3.2m to Byrne Wallace, €2.5m to Mason Hayes & Curran and €1.6m to Comyn Kelleher Tobin.
Some €1.1m was also paid to Arthur Cox and its consultancy firm, Arthur Cox Consultancy Services.
Tusla would not disclose the rates it paid to solicitors and barristers.
In a statement it said it ran a tender competition for solicitors earlier this year where fixed prices were received for work to be carried out per year, rather than hourly rates or rates per case. It did not tender for barristers as it was necessary to select them based on the type of case, their expertise and their experience.
The Chief State Solicitor's Office, which acts as solicitor for Ireland, the Attorney General, Government departments and State agencies, paid out €11.5m in fees last year, predominantly to barristers. Other State bodies which spent large sums on legal fees included Nama (€9.47m), the Central Bank (€7.3m), the Revenue Commissioners (€7.2m), the HSE (€6.9m) and the Mental Health Commission (€3.68m).