Watchdog sets precedent by cutting legal costs in libel case
FATHER Kevin Reynolds's solicitor Robert Dore's instructions fee was set at €80,000 -- less than a third of the €275,000 initially sought in a decision that is likely to set an important precedent for future cases.
In his judgment on the matter, Taxing Master Declan O'Neill said the work carried out was not complex in nature but was treated as extremely urgent, and handled with "great efficiency and dedication".
He said the fee could not exceed the "high water mark" of €97,500 based on comparative cases.
And he also cited the economic downturn and a resulting reduction in legal fees generally, which had to be taken into account.
It will have implications for the scale of High Court costs in the future, as well as the fees that can be expected by the country's high-earning lawyers.
When the case was settled, RTE agreed to pay Fr Reynolds's legal costs in addition to an estimated €1m compensation payment.
What happens in such a scenario is relatively straightforward. The lawyers for the litigants attempt to agree upon a figure which will cover the winner's legal costs.
These costs usually consist of:
• The fee due to the winner's solicitor for taking on and carrying the case through to completion (the solicitor's "instructions fee").
• The fees due to the winner's barristers for taking on the case (the "brief fee"). This includes the first day in court and, if applicable, their second and successive daily appearances in court. These daily fees are rather quaintly referred to as the "refresher fees".
RTE and Fr Reynolds's solicitor were unable to reach agreement on fees. Fr Reynolds's solicitor, Mr Dore, had claimed an instructions fee of €275,000.
Mr Dore had instructed two senior counsel and a junior counsel. The two senior counsel had proposed a brief fee of €65,000 each; the junior counsel a brief fee of €43,500.
But what happens when litigants cannot agree upon the level of costs in a High Court case? There then comes into play a procedure called "taxation".
When lawyers talk about having High Court costs "taxed", what they really mean is that the costs are assessed and ruled upon by a High Court official, the taxing master.
The taxing master isn't a judge but he or she (there are currently two of them) has substantial powers in relation to the determination of legal costs.
The office of taxing master has heretofore been a much unnoticed but nevertheless powerful institution, determining lawyers' costs in every type of legal wrangle imaginable. There is a widely held belief that legal costs have reached levels which are not sustainable.
The amounts paid to tribunal lawyers have caused sustained public outrage. Any arguments that those same tribunal lawyers might have earned the same or more in the "day job" never really cut much ice as the economy disappeared down the tubes.
But back to the Fr Reynolds case. Mr Dore and his barristers clearly did an excellent job for their client. But did they deserve fees of the extent claimed by them from RTE?
The case had been settled immediately prior to trial, literally on the steps of the court.
Mr Dore explained how the case had taken up enormous amounts of his time over six months. It had involved complexity and grave responsibility; he had forced a belligerent and deluded RTE to accept the results of paternity tests, and he had put the case at the forefront of his priorities.
Mr O'Neill, a recent appointment and renowned authority on legal costs, decided that Mr Dore's instructions fee should be set at €80,000; a reduction of €195,000 on the €275,000 claimed. He then decided that the two senior counsels' brief fees should be reduced from €65,000 each to €26,000 each, a reduction totalling €78,000.
The junior counsel's brief fee was reduced from €43,500 to €20,000.
Ultimately this can be appealed to the High Court, but it is unclear whether this will happen in this case. Mr Dore could not be contacted for comment yesterday.
It would be very unusual for the High Court to alter the Taxing Master's decision.
All of this is good news for hard-pressed TV licence payers who are carrying the financial can for this debacle.
For lawyers, however, Taxing Master O'Neill's decision in this case is a manifestation of an increasingly chilly wind blowing through the Four Courts.
He has, in one stroke, made it clear that a necessary consequence of the economic downturn is a reduction in lawyers' fees.