ICA’s spend on legal fees rises 20-fold to €300,000 in a year

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Ellen Coyne

The Irish Countrywomen’s Association spent €300,000 on legal fees last year – more than 20 times what it spent the year before.

The €297,723 bill came after premium firm Mason, Hayes and Curran was hired to help the ICA try to navigate its way out of a number of corporate governance and charity law concerns.

In the most recent financial statements for The Countrywoman’s Trust CLG, seen by the Irish Independent, the biggest and oldest women’s organisation in the country showed how its legal fees rose dramatically in 2022 when compared with the €13,678 it spent on legal and professional fees the year before.

The expenditure was listed as an “exceptional item”.

“The company incurred significant legal fees during the year under review in relation to the legal structure and the Charities Regulator, company law, employment law and governance issues,” the ICA’s financial statement said.

Last year, this newspaper first revealed that the ICA had been criticised by the regulator for a number of issues relating to its legal structure, as well as an unusual expenses arrangement.

Mason, Hayes and Curran, a firm with experience in charity law, was hired to help the ICA to handle the controversy.

In its directors’ report for the year ended December 2022, the ICA said its national executive board “has worked extensively during 2022” to clarify to the charities regulator why the ICA existed as two separate legal entities.

“The board has been engaged with the Charities Regulator since November 2021 to address this and the related regulatory issues seeking to ensure full compliance with both company and charity law. This remains a priority into 2023,” the report said.

When considering “regulatory compliance risks” the ICA is facing, the directors report said the organisation was aware that non-compliance with charity law “would jeopardise the future of the organisation.”

“To manage this risk, the organisation employs suitably qualified professionals and takes advice from experts in the charity sector,” it said.

A treasurer’s report shared with members earlier this year also sought to warn that expenditure on legal fees for 2022 had been high.

“I would like to flag that very important work on the legal structure is being undertaken by the board that should have been done over a number of years.

“We have been faced with a large body of work which we, the board, are committed to completing,” the treasurer’s report had said.

The ICA has been mired in controversy for months after it emerged that three women had been kicked off its national executive board.

Patricia Madden, Carol Grogan and Joanne Dunphy Allen were removed without being given any reason, and the unusual decision was kept secret from the majority of the membership.

All three had previously raised concerns about the ICA’s corporate governance.

A number of controversies emerged in the wake of the women’s departure, including over the sale of Daniel O’Donnell tickets, criticism from the Charities Regulator, unusual payments to a senior member and the selling off of fine art.​

Earlier this year, the ICA issued its first and only lengthy statement on the ongoing issues where it said it was carrying out an internal audit in order to make itself more “effective and efficient”.