State spent €24m on external lawyers

Government departments have spent a staggering €24m on external lawyers in the past three years, despite having the office of the attorney general at their disposal.

Paschal Donohoe’s Department of Finance, in particular, saw its spend on external legal fees jump from €757,172 to €2.4m.

Figures obtained by the Irish Examiner confirm that many departments have had significant year-on-year increases in legal bills since 2015.

Paschal Donohoe’s Department of Finance, in particular, saw its spend on external legal fees jump from €757,172 to €2.4m.

Some of the country’s top law firms, such as William Fry, Arthur Cox, and Hayes Solicitors, were among the lawyers engaged by the department.

The finance department was the biggest spender on external legal fees during the period covering 2015 to 2017, totalling €5.3m overall.

During that period, the department was dealing with the Siteserv scandal, the tracker mortgage scandal, and the Project Eagle/Nama scandal, which contributed to the high spend.

Figures obtained also show the Department of Defence was the next biggest spender totalling €4.7m.

While claims involving former members of the Defence Forces in relation to Lariam and air corps toxic chemical exposure are handled by the State Claims Agency, the department’s high legal spend came amid a number of controversies since 2015.

The Department of Communications’ outlay was €4.5m, including a massive jump from €687,000 in 2016 to more than €3.1m last year.

Some departments failed to provide information when requested but the figures were in response to a series of parliamentary questions by Independent TD for Tipperary Mattie McGrath, who expressed outrage at the spend.

Mr McGrath said the sums being paid out in legal fees by some Government departments were staggering, as were the year-on-year increases in legal fees expenditure.

For example, what justified the massive jump in Department of Communications legal fees from €686,000 in 2016 to over €3.1m in 2017?” asked Mr McGrath.

“There genuinely seems to be no real accountability around the exorbitant amounts being paid out.

“Some legal firms are receiving hundreds of thousands in fees for what essentially appears to be advice on identical matters.

“It cannot be allowed to continue,” he said.

The figures also show that the Department of Justice, as the parent department for the Smithwick Tribunal, has spent almost €6m on external third party legal fees as well as its own spend on lawyers.

In total, the cost of funding the Smithwick Tribunal’s legal costs between 2015 and 2017 amounted to €5.2m.

Smithwick investigated the events surrounding the killing of Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Robert Buchanan of the former Royal Ulster Constabulary.

They were killed in an IRA ambush at Jonesborough on March 20, 1989.

A number of departments, meanwhile, had no spend on legal fees.

The Department of Foreign Affairs said it generally seeks advice on domestic legal matters from the Office of the Attorney General and/or the Chief State Solicitor’s Office.

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