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FIVE Irish barristers who earned a total of u2.3 million in fees at an inquiry tribunal are refusing to take a pay cut, claiming that the fees are not excessive.
The five were members of the State's legal team at a judicial inquiry into allegations of fraud and malpractice in the Irish beef industry. The hearings, chaired by a judge, lasted 226 days, the longest on record.
The legal fees bill met by the State totalled u7.1 million. Senior counsel were paid u1,800 for each sitting day and u1,000 for non-sitting days, with junior counsel receiving u1,200 per sitting day.
Top earner was the barrister who presented the evidence on behalf of the inquiry tribunal, senior counsel Eoin McGonigal, who collected more than u1 million in fees.
Two of the State's legal team, Henry Hickey and Conor Maguire, were paid almost u800,000 each. Another, Colm O hoisin, got more than u400,000.
The public accounts committee of the Irish parliament, responding to public outrage over the fees bonanza, wrote to the five asking that they return some of the money in view of the level of concern.
Among those who received the request was the lawyer at the centre of the recent Irish political crisis, former Attorney General and High Court President Harry Whelehan. He had served on the State's team for only a short time, but had earned u75,000 in fees.
Making its request for repayment, the all-party committee pointed out that PR and media consultants hired by the state for the inquiry had already agreed to reduce their fees.
But the barristers refused, Whelehan dismissing the repayment request as "unjustified and inappropriate". Maguire and O hoisin say the fees had been agreed in advance and are not excessive.
Hickey says he has already paid back half of what he received in income tax.
"The fees paid were by no means excessive, given the nature of the tribunal, the most complex in the history of the State," he says.
He says the brief and refresher fees paid were lower than the rates charged in commercial cases and adds that he would have preferred a much shorter inquiry "as it would have enabled me to resume my ordinary practice much earlier".
One member of the committee, Dublin Labour Party deputy Tom Broughan, described the fees and the attitudes of those who received them as a scandal. He says: "We must take action to ensure that there are no more lottery winners in the Irish legal profession."
Legislation aimed at controlling the cost of future judicial inquiries is planned by the Irish government.