Lawyer caught with cocaine one of the highest paid legal aid solicitors

Total of €53.68m paid in criminal legal aid to lawyers last year, a rise of 9% from 2016

Solicitor Aonghus McCarthy is one of the best paid criminal legal aid solicitors in the State, new figures show. Photograph: Collins Courts

Solicitor Aonghus McCarthy is one of the best paid criminal legal aid solicitors in the State, new figures show. Photograph: Collins Courts


The solicitor caught with cocaine in his wallet at Mountjoy prison is one of the best paid criminal legal aid solicitors in the country, new figures show.

According to figures from the Department of Justice, Aonghus McCarthy’s practice has received €1.093 million (including VAT at 23 per cent) in criminal legal aid fees from the State over the past five years.

New figures from the department show that the Cork native last year received €287,460 in legal aid fees – putting him among the top 20 best-paid solicitors of the 850 solicitors to receive payments under the criminal legal aid scheme last year.

Mr McCarthy is set to escape a conviction for the possession of the €26 worth cocaine weighing 0.33 grammes at Mountjoy prison after a judge this week accepted the 32-year-old’s explanation that he did not know he was carrying the drug.

In a Garda interview, Mr McCarthy denied owning the cocaine, saying that someone else must have put it in his wallet. He said: “I do not do drugs and I would not risk the entirety of my career.”

Judge Gerry Jones said he would strike out the case next month if Mr McCarthy donated €1,250 to the Merchant Quay drug project.

A conviction would have jeopardised Mr McCarthy’s career as a solicitor.

In the five years since 2013, Mr McCarthy has earned €1.09 million in criminal legal aid payments – reaching a peak of €343,893 in 2016 when he was ranked the seventh best-paid criminal legal aid solicitor in the country.

The 2016 payments compared to €50,003 in 2013. Out of the fees received, Mr McCarthy has to fund the cost of operating an office including payments to staff.

Efforts to contact Mr McCarthy on Friday for comment were unsuccessful.


The overall figures show that last year, a total of €53.68 million was paid in criminal legal aid to lawyers – an increase of 9 per cent on the €49 million paid out in 2016.

Solicitors last year received €32.2 million in fees – an increase of 13 per cent on the €29.3 million paid out in 2016

Payments to barristers last year increased by 8.5 per cent, going from €19.83 million to €21.49 million. 87 senior counsel received €8.8 million and 478 junior counsel received €12.69 million.

The lawyer who received the highest amount of criminal legal aid fees last year was Michael Bowman SC, who received €566,156. The second highest paid was Bernard Condon SC who received €459,291.

Mr Condon last year successfully defended Sean Fitzpatrick in the longest running criminal trial in the history of the State.

Michael O’Higgins SC is currently representing murder accused Patrick Hutch (25) in the Regency murder trial. He was one of five barristers to receive between €300,000 and €400,000 last year when he received €306,642.

Seán Gillane SC is currently leading the prosecution case in the Regency murder trial and last year received €203,141 for defending accused persons. Mr Gillane’s most recent high-profile case was representing Aer Lingus ground handler Frederick Cham (53), who was jailed for four years this week for helping to smuggle people into the country.

Brendan Grehan SC is one of the most high-profile defence barristers in the country and was last year paid €321,510 in legal aid – one of Mr Grehan’s cases last year involved representing Hazel Waters who was jailed for killing her two-year-old son.

The highest paid legal aid solicitor in the country last year was Cahir O’Higgins, who received €486,997. Mr O’Higgins was one of five solicitors to receive in excess of €400,000.

Others include Ian Bailey’s lawyer, Frank Buttimer, who received €445,257, and solicitor for Sean Fitzpatrick, Michael Staines, who received €447,381.

Michelle Smith de Bruin

Solicitor Jonathan Dunphy, who represented notorious killer Graham Dwyer in his 43-day trial in 2015, received €165,821 in legal aid payments last year.

The figures show that former triple Olympic gold medallist, Michelle Smith de Bruin BL, last year increased her legal aid earnings to €12,912.

A Department of Justice spokesman said yesterday: “Minister Flanagan recognises the constitutional basis for the criminal legal aid scheme. The operation of the scheme is kept under ongoing review.

He said: “The increase in expenditure is mainly due to the fact that in 2017 the total number of Legal Aid certificates issued in the District Courts was 64,181. The number of certificates issued in 2016 was 55,617. In addition, the department has no control over the complexity of cases coming before the courts. Cases heard before the circuit and higher courts attract a significantly higher fee.”

Director of the Law Society Ken Murphy said: “The increase in the total amount paid under the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme is due to the volume of cases defended and not an increase in the actual fees per client.

“The resilience and integrity of the criminal legal aid system is being threatened due to long-standing and continued reductions in rates. Severe direct and indirect cuts to the scheme were imposed during the financial crisis and it is the society’s view that the 26 per cent cut to solicitor rates is excessive, damaging to the administration of justice, and needs to be addressed.

“The increased complexity in criminal law practice makes such rates uneconomical and has resulted in practitioners leaving criminal law for other disciplines.”

Rates of pay

Rates of pay for Mr Bowman and his senior counsel colleagues show that they receive a brief fee of €7,127 for defending murder accused in the Central Criminal Court and €1,562 for each subsequent day after the first day.

In relation to their work in the Circuit Court, senior counsel receive a “brief” fee of €1,716, with a subsequent daily fee or refresher fee after the first day of €858.

The largest proportion of barristers practice as junior counsel and they receive a brief fee of €4,752 for a murder trial at the Central Criminal Court along with a refresher or daily fee of €1,041 while junior counsel receive a brief fee of €1,144 in the Circuit Court along with a refresher or daily fee of €572.

Solicitors receive a brief fee of €7,127 for a case in the Central Criminal Court along with a refresher fee of €750 for each subsequent day, while solicitors receive a brief fee of €1,144 for cases in the Circuit Court along with a refresher fee of €418.

However, the majority of a solicitor’s workload takes place in the District Court where they receive a brief fee of €200 for each case.

Top 20 highest paid criminal legal-aid solicitors in 2017 (including 23 per cent Vat)

Cahir O’Higgins €486,997

Michael Hennessy €473,206

Michael Staines €447,381

Frank Buttimer €445,381

Sarah Ryan €424,257

Simon Fleming €399,302

Tony Collier €394,337

Edmund J Burke €385,362

Tracy Horan €369,766

Yvonne Bambury €351,319

Kenneth Cunningham €350,694

Áine Flynn €342,888

Michael E Hanahoe €319,819

Amanda Connolly €300,183

John E Feaheny €287,799

John O’Doherty €287,799

Aonghus McCarthy €287,460

Ciaran Mulholland €285,107

Padraig O’Donovan €279,291

Edward O’Connor €277,789

Top 20 highest paid criminal legal-aid barristers in 2017 (including 23 per cent VAT)

Michael Bowman SC €566,156

Bernard Condon SC €459,291

Colman Cody SC €353,353

Keith Spencer SC €326,387

Brendan Grehan SC €321,510

Michael O’Higgins SC €306,642

Mark Nicholas SC €300,842

Giollaiosa Ó Lideadha SC €294,175

Ciarán O’Loughlin SC €284,262

Brian McInerney BL €277,784

Edward Doocey BL €277,748

Pádraig Dwyer SC €267,731

Seán Guerin SC €254,443

Luigi Rea BL €240,676

Damien Colgan SC €237,875

Hugh Hartnett SC €235,922

Kieran Kelly BL €233,614

Patrick Gageby SC €233,210

Sandra Frayne BL €223,745

Shelley Horan BL €219,264