Demand that barristers repay Covid grants may be unlawful

Financial aid worth more than €5,000 part of Government’s Restart Grant Plus Scheme

To qualify for the grant, barristers had to be earning less than €100,000 per annum. File photograph: Getty

To qualify for the grant, barristers had to be earning less than €100,000 per annum. File photograph: Getty

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Barristers have been told that a demand to give back thousands of euros in Covid grants paid in error may be unlawful, according to correspondence seen by The Irish Times.

About 150 barristers were told on Monday that they had to pay back the grants – worth up to €5,200 each – administered under the Government’s Restart Grant Plus Scheme as they were ineligible to receive it, despite having the funds paid over to them and their applications approved by Dublin City Council.

In a letter sent to barristers on Monday afternoon, Maura McNally SC, the chairwoman of the Bar Council, told colleagues that the council is “both shocked and dismayed by this surprising and disappointing development”.

A total of 500 barristers have been affected, said the Bar Council, 150 of whom have been asked to repay the funds. The city council said it is seeking the repayment of just over €750,000 paid in error.

Ms McNally wrote that it was up to individual members to make their own decisions on whether to appeal the decision to revoke funds. But it was open to them to argue that “the change in position announced is unfair and constitutes a breach of your rights based on legitimate expectation and is unlawful”.

The grant scheme, which is administered by local authorities on behalf of the Department Employment, is based on a complex rebate and waiver scheme linked to the payment of local rates. On Monday, affected barristers were told by the local authority that they must repay the funds as “following a clarification issued to all local authorities . . . it was apparent that the interpretation used to approve your application was not correct.”

The barristers concerned rent desks in the Law Library, rather than offices. For the purposes of the grant, the desks are not being considered as a rateable space “and therefore applicants in such a space are not entitled to the Restart Grant Plus”.

Ms McNally has written to Minister for Employment Leo Varadkar over the issue, arguing that rates are paid for the workspaces concerned by the Bar Council, which in turn is paid by members through fees. She warned that the move by the council appeared to be a new requirement which was introduced after applications were submitted and approved. She has sought a meeting with the Tánaiste.

Ineligible barristers

Legal sources said that many of the affected barristers would be among the junior ranks of the profession, as they would not be generating income from their practice sufficient to pay for an office. To qualify for the grant, barristers had to be earning less than €100,000 per annum and had to have lost at least 25 per cent of their income due to Covid-19.

While the city council is now arguing the barristers are ineligible, in September, the Bar Council told barristers that it had engaged with Dublin City Council and that “it appears that members who occupy and pay for an assigned seat on a permanent basis in our buildings, and subject to complying with other criteria, may qualify for this grant”.

In October, the Bar Council told barristers that while each individual had to determine whether they were eligible, members were paying a percentage of commercial rates through their fees. They were also told members had access to seating in seven commercially ratable buildings as a result of paying their fees.

A spokeswoman for the department said it is not aware of any other council with this issue.