Siteserv inquiry judge seeks doubling of rates for lawyers

Inquiry into sale of Siteserv to Denis O’Brien company gets one-year extension to report

 

An inquiry into the sale of Siteserv to a company controlled by businessman Denis O’Brien has received a one-year extension to report on the deal, as the presiding judge used an interim update to campaign for a doubling of rates for his senior lawyers to €1,500 a day.*

The interim report, published this week, has also called for a widening of guidelines on expenses for witnesses to the investigation, many of whom are concerned they may be “substantially” out of pocket as a result of legal costs.

The last government appointed Mr Justice Brian Cregan in 2015 as the sole member of a Commission of Investigation into transactions involving State-owned Irish Bank Resolution Corporation, formerly Anglo Irish Bank, that resulted in a loss of more than €10 million to taxpayers.

The terms of the commission were changed a year later to focus initially on the 2012 sale of Siteserv to Mr O’Brien’s company, Millington, for €45.5 million, in a deal where IBRC wrote off €110 million in loans to the then-struggling building services company.

Controversy blew up ahead of the sale after French company Altrad said it had told Siteserv it was willing to pay €60 million for the business. However, Siteserv’s board argued that there was no certainty Altrad’s approach would result in a transaction.

Timeframe

It emerged this week that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has extended the timeframe for the commission to report on the Siteserv deal by one year to the end of 2018.

The inquiry has received 788 lever arch folders of documents to date on the transaction, amounting to 500,000 pages of discovery documentation, according to the interim report. It began hearing from the first of 60 expected witnesses at the end of October.

“The commission is intent on conducting its investigation in an efficient and effective manner,” the report said, adding, however, that it is subject to “onerous requirements” under the Commission of Investigation Act 2004 to afford all parties involved fair procedures.

In the meantime, the commission said in the report that it is “concerned” about the level of fees for its legal team – at €788 per day for senior counsel and €394 per day for junior counsel – as set out under current guidelines. The commission has two senior barristers and five junior counsel.

“These rates bear no relationship to the market rate for the difficult, complex, commercial law work of this nature,” it said. “Moreover, they were set at a time when Ireland was experiencing very difficult economic circumstances.”

Senior counsel

The commission noted that senior counsel at the Disclosures Tribunal into the treatment of Garda whistleblowers are on a rate of €1,500 per day, adding that its lawyers “should be brought into line immediately” with the tribunal’s rates.

There is a “real concern” that the commission might lose members of its legal team for periods of time as the investigation continues, causing “serious difficulties” for the inquiry, the report said.

The commission has also called for guidelines on costs for witnesses to be expanded as many have claimed that they do not cover adequately for legal expenses, including for the provision of large volumes of documents to the inquiry, correspondence with the commission, preparation of witness statements and the reading of hearing transcripts.

The report said that many of the witnesses will seek recovery of costs. However, it can only award costs after the investigation is completed and not on an interim basis.

* edited December 22nd