Figures released under the Freedom of Information Act show the HSE spent €15.32m on external legal advice last year, the majority of which was used to fight a series of cases brought against the State.
Documents obtained by trade newspaper the Irish Medical Times confirm that the money was spent on 74,196 hours of solicitors’ help from Arthur Cox Consultancy Services, which farmed out the work to 28 separate “member firms”.
In 2011 and 2012, the payments hit the €19m-€20m mark, meaning legal experts received €207 an hour on average for their work with the HSE last year.
The amount of money the HSE spends on legal advice for compensation cases taken by patients has provoked considerable anger among both the public and judges since the recession began.
In November 2012, Galway City circuit court judge, Gerard Griffin, underlined the irritation from some sections of the legal system over the scale of the payments.
During a case involving a teenager who attempted to rob members of the public after the HSE West stopped funding his psychiatric and psychological services, he said: “It is something that amazes me in all my time on the bench that they [the HSE] seem to send in [to court] senior counsel, junior counsel, and solicitors who charge €800 an hour and then say they have no money.”
In recent months, the HSE has also been criticised by a number of patients and families who were forced to take stressful, drawn-out court cases to receive compensation, and apologies, over errors in their treatment. Among those affected was the family of 45-year-old Cork woman Gráinne Daly, who had to fight for four years against a “culture of non-disclosure” to find out what caused their relative’s death.
Jean and Thomas Gaffney, from Kilcohan Park in Co Waterford, last week revealed a similar five-year battle to find out what happened to their son Dylan during birth, telling the Irish Examiner: “There’s no humanity in it [the legal process]. We’re the innocent victims, yet we had to fight the State every step of the way.”
The HSE is currently examining ways to reduce legal costs by moving more work to its in-house HSE Office of Legal Services team.
However, Irish Patients Association chairman Stephen McMahon hit out at the current situation.
“There’s an industry behind the conflict [between patients and the HSE].
“We’re not talking about having an open cheque book for every case here, but if someone is clearly harmed by the system, then the system has a duty of care to make it right.
“People have been forced to fight right down to the line in cases and then after years of legal rows giving a settlement. It shouldn’t just be a case of calling in the lawyers at every twist and turn. There needs to be common sense in this, and I would like to see an audit of exactly how that money is spent and on what cases,” the campaigner said.