Guardian ad litem paid €240,000 last year, Dáil committee told

Comptroller says legal service for vulnerable children has no formal oversight

Comptroller and Auditor General Séamus McCarthy: He told the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee  that the guardian ad litem service, whose 65  case-workers were paid a total of €8.2 million by  the State in 2016, had developed in an ad hoc fashion.  Photograph: Frank Miller

Comptroller and Auditor General Séamus McCarthy: He told the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee that the guardian ad litem service, whose 65 case-workers were paid a total of €8.2 million by the State in 2016, had developed in an ad hoc fashion. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

A guardian ad litem – a person appointed to represent the best interests of a child in court – was paid €240,000 last year, an Oireachtas committee has heard.

The Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee on Thursday heard that the Child and Family Agency, Tusla, paid a total of €8.2 million to the 65 guardians ad litem operating in the State in 2016.

The individual annual fees for the service, established under the Child Care Act 1991, ranged from €40,000 to €240,000 in once case, the committee heard. Fine Gael TD Josepha Madigan said it the largest payment was an extraordinary figure, amounting to “more than the President of Ireland earns in a year”.

The average income for guardians ad litem last year was €126,000, the committee was told. Ms Madigan said this seemed to be on the basis of 1,000 hours work during the year. She said it was 2½ times what people doing similar work in the North, England and Wales received.

Guardians ad litem are appointed by judges to represent the interest of children in care. Their key functions are to ascertain the views of children who are the subject of care proceedings and to advise the court of these views, as well as giving their considered views on what is in the child’s best interest.

Formal oversight

Comptroller and Auditor General Séamus McCarthy, who examined the operation of the service, said there was no agency charged with formal oversight of guardians ad litem.

The system had developed in an ad hoc way, the committee heard.

Mr McCarthy said there was insufficient data to allow for effective monitoring of the expenditure on and delivery of the service.

It was stated that, on average, a guardian ad litem has about 10 cases ongoing at a time. “The absence of key data means demand for the service cannot be reliably estimated,” he said.

The comptroller also said the legal services were procured in 82 per cent of cases but that these were not subject to procurement guidelines or rules.

In all, an additional €7 million was estimated to have been spent on related legal fees last year, an increase of €1.5 million on 2015.

Ms Madigan pointed out that the documents show that reductions in legal fees were negotiated in 81 per cent of cases. That suggested, she said, that overcharging was common.

Significant reform

Fergal Lynch, the secretary general of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, said it has acknowledged the present arrangements for guardians ad litem are in need of significant reform.

“Despite its importance to vulnerable children and young people, the service is ad hoc, and lacks an appropriate system of organisation and governance.”

He pointed to the legislation announced this week that will set up a new national service for guardians ad litem that will set minimum standards for qualifications; regulate assignment of legal services; and monitor performance.

Mr Lynch and Tusla chief executive Fred McBride told the committee they were aware of the problem and had taken significant steps in recent years to control costs. Mr Lynch did agree that the comptroller’s report had given extra impetus to the reforms.

Catherine Murphy of the Social Democrats said the system “looks like a cartel”. She said there were 65 guardians ad litem and that there was an incentive for them to keep going in the cases they handled.