Ceisteanna — Questions. - Independent Legal Advice.

Ruairí Quinn

Question:

2 Mr. Quinn asked the Taoiseach the total sum available in the 1998 Estimates for his Department and the Attorney General's office for commissioning outside legal advice; his views on the arrangements which should obtain in expending this money; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8033/98]

The 1998 Estimate for my Department does not contain a specific provision for commissioning outside legal advice. There is, however, a general provision of £310,000 for consultancies commissioned by my Department from which costs of legal advice, if arising, would be paid. The bodies under the aegis of my Department would pay any legal costs from their financial allocations in Vote 3, including costs for outside legal advice, if arising. Specific provisions for costs of this nature would not be identified in the normal course.

Public procurement guidelines, such as tendering procedures, are applied to consultancies. This is inappropriate, however, where legal advice is sought on a confidential basis. All legal fees are evaluated as appropriate to the level of service provided before payments are made. Where minor costs arise the evaluation is undertaken at official level. Otherwise costs are evaluated by the Attorney General or Chief State Solicitor.

In the 1998 Estimate for the Office of the Attorney General and the Office of the Chief State Solicitor, a total of £5.55 million is available for general law expenses and fees to counsel. The amount comprises £3.45 million for fees to counsel and £1.8 million for general law expenses in the Vote of the Office of the Chief State Solicitor and £0.3 million for general law expenses in the Vote of the Office of the Attorney General. The amount voted to the Office of the Chief State Solicitor almost entirely relates to costs of litigation, for example, legal costs awarded as a result of litigation, witness expenses and payment of fees to experts, such as medical consultants, engineers, etc. Similarly the amount of £3.45 million for fees to counsel provides for the payment of fees due to counsel engaged for litigation on behalf of the State. It would also meet the cost of legal opinions. The funding for general law expenses in the Vote of the Office of the Attorney General includes the legal costs associated with the swimming inquiry.

The Office of the Attorney General and the Office of the Chief State Solicitor have developed procedures for the engagement and payment of fees to counsel which take into account the fact that the offices have no control over the timing of legal cases and requests for legal assistance. These include sanction by the Attorney General and the Department of Finance as appropriate.

I thank the Taoiseach for his comprehensive reply. He stated the Offices of the Attorney General and the Chief State Solicitor had arranged procedures whereby advice is obtained. Why do those procedures not involve any element of competitive tendering? If the services of a medical doctor, an architect, a quantity surveyor or others were required, there would be some element of competitive tendering. Will the Taoiseach indicate why this is not the case when the Attorney General seeks legal advice from eminent senior or junior counsel in the Law Library?

I assume there is no competitive tendering in these matters. I am unsure whether there is competitive tendering on them in the courts generally. I assume Attorneys General would seek advice on an urgent basis and would try to obtain the best advice they can, so the normal procurement procedure of seeking three tenders and making a decision would not be feasible. However, Attorneys General have been trying to take account of what was stated in this House about enormous fees and have tried to negotiate a capping arrangement. As the House will recall as regards one inquiry, there was a short delay while the Attorney General attempted to negotiate such procedures. While it is not tendering as the Deputy outlines it, Attorneys Generals are now trying to facilitate a more cost effective regime when costs are likely to mount up, something which was not done in the past.

Could the Taoiseach outline the thinking of this and previous Governments on this? If accountants and consultants are covered by the rules for competitive tendering set out by the Department of Finance and with which every former and current office holder is acutely familiar, why is it that legal advice is exempt? My question relates to the money allocated for external advice. Since the Government has declined to appoint a Deputy Attorney General and must seek external legal advice, why is it that in so doing it chooses to disregard the normal practice and legal requirement in every other sphere of competitive tendering for the procurement of professional advice? Why is it that in the pursuit of external legal advice, competitive tendering is not engaged upon?

When dealing with cases, Attorneys General will always try to get the best legal advice. If three similar people can offer such advice, it is a matter for them to decide who to use and that is correct. Normally, they use people in whom they have confidence and who they believe can do a capable job. I am sure the Deputy would not object to that.

As regards a Deputy Attorney General, I do not believe he or she could fulfil the role currently served by external legal advice. It might be the case if he or she had a different background or experience or if they had been working in commercial law or some other area with which the Attorney General was not familiar. However, such advice is likely to be available from the staff in his office. The Attorney General would only seek external advice when he believes he requires expertise or professional advice not available within his office. In those cases, I believe Attorneys General are taking greater account of the costs. They are not immune to the criticism in the national media and in this House of the legal fees in various tribunals in recent years.

Recently the Attorney General saw fit to seek external legal advice in respect of the amendment of the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act, 1921. I ask — not the content of the advice received — the names of the legal advisers whose advice was sought and the cost of that legal advice? From whom did the Attorney General seek advice and what was the cost given that the official advice from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform was that such legal advice was not necessary?

I have not got that information but I had it in the preliminary papers last week. If I had such information I would have no difficulty in supplying it to the Deputy. I have information on other tribunals in my back-up information but not the information requested.

If the advice is in the public domain——

The Deputy did not ask for the content of the advice but the names of the persons from whom the advice was sought and the cost.

If the Taoiseach is willing to make the information available the information I am specifically requesting is the following: to whom did the Attorney General turn for external legal advice and the cost of the legal advice in relation to the recommendation to amend the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act, 1921?

Since I do not have the information with me I give an undertaking to supply it to the Deputy.

Thank you.