Bar Council’s free accommodation at the Four Courts is unlawful, letter claims

Council is described as a ‘private club’ that charges ‘hello money’ in letter sent to Minister

The Four Courts complex in Dublin. File photograph: Bryan O’Brien

The Four Courts complex in Dublin. File photograph: Bryan O’Brien

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The arrangement whereby the Bar Council is given free accommodation in the Four Courts is unlawful, it has been claimed.

The claim is the subject of a letter of complaint sent to Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe, in which the Bar Council is described as a “private club” for barristers that charges €1,500 in “hello money” to new entrants.

Under an arrangement that goes back to the early 1800s, the Office of Public Works (OPW) provides accommodation for desks and library facilities for more than 400 barristers within the Four Courts complex.

The licence that covers the arrangement allows the OPW to collect a rent of one penny each year “on April Fools’ Day”, though the practice is not to do so, according to the letter.

It was sent by KRW Law earlier this month, acting on behalf of their client, barrister Eugenie Houston, who is not a member of the Bar Council. Five sets of High Court proceedings she took against the council were thrown out last year.

The Bar Council represents the bulk of the State’s more than 2,000 barristers.

Objecting to the current accommodation arrangement between the Bar Council and the OPW at the Four Courts, the letter says on behalf of Ms Houston that the State may not subsidise the holder of a dominant position in the marketplace.

Additional accommodation

Historically, barristers worked from the Law Library in the Four Courts building, but more recently, as the numbers in the profession grew, the council provided extensive additional office accommodation and back-up services for its members on Church Street, close to the Four Courts.

It also rents accommodation in the new Criminal Courts of Justice building, on Parkgate Street, Dublin 8, at what is understood to be a considerable rent.

The letter sent on behalf of Ms Houston suggests the State should seek a back payment of €2 million from the Bar Council for the free accommodation that has been provided at the Four Courts over the years.

The letter says that Ms Houston has seen the licence agreement between the OPW and the council, and takes issue with the OPW’s apparent view that the council was “providing a public service”.

“The Bar Council is a private club, charges ‘hello money’ of €1,500 to new entrants to the market for barrister services and significant annual fees running to thousands of euro per year for Law Library services.”

A spokeswoman for the Bar Council did not wish to comment.

‘Complex’ arrangements

A spokesman for the OPW said the accommodation arrangements for the Bar Council’s Law Library in the Four Courts are “complex”.

They date back to the early 1800s, when the original Law Library in the Four Courts building was constructed with funds provided by the Benchers, the predecessors of the Bar Council.

“Since 1931, the occupation by the Bar Council at the Four Courts complex has been by way of historical licence agreements that currently remain in place,” he said.

In the High Court last year, Judge Michael Twomey dismissed a series of actions Ms Houston had taken against the Bar Council because she had failed to make a prima facie case.

He said Ms Houston, by then no longer a member of the Law Library, had somehow had a “very extreme reaction” to the handling by the Bar Council’s professional conduct tribunal of a “relatively minor” complaint against her.

At one stage she’d said she was being treated “like a Jew in Nazi Germany”.

Five sets of proceedings she took led to the council incurring approximately€500,000 in legal costs, the judge said. Ms Houston, who represented herself in the proceedings, told the court that she did not have any money.