Local authority refuses to release legal fees records

Clare County Council won’t release details of the fees it paid a law firm in 2022 – despite its website suggesting that the council paid the practice almost €20 million that year. 

The council has retained Michael Houlihan & Partners Solicitors (now MHP Sellors Solicitors) for almost half a century and though the authority told The Ditch that the €20 million wasn’t “exclusively legal fees”, it still won’t provide a breakdown of the figure. 

Last year the Clare Champion reported that the council spent an average of €13,000 a week on legal fees from 2019 to 2021. 

‘This is an awful lot of money’

The Ditch in late July this year submitted a freedom of information request to Clare County Council seeking records of legal fees it paid to Michael Houlihan & Partners from 2017 to 2022. 

The council’s freedom of information officer responded in August, writing that it “publishes, on a quarterly basis, payments made to suppliers over €20,000” and provided a link to its website. 

This link suggested the council had paid the law firm almost €20 million in 2022. 

The Ditch replied and pointed out that, according to the site, the council in 2022 had made payments of €19,565,249.10 for “legal fees” to Michael Houlihan & Partners, representing 15 percent of its entire annual budget. 

The council said that this figure wasn’t entirely legal fees, but refused to explain further. 

“The figure paid to Michael Houlihan Solicitors is not exclusively legal fees – it includes all house acquisitions, land acquisitions, CPO costs associated with various capital projects such as Killaloe Bypass,” wrote the council in its response.

Following further communications over a six-week period, Clare County Council’s finance department confirmed that it would not provide a breakdown of legal fees incurred in 2022. 

“The payments made to our legal advisors were in relation to conveyance and the classification is correct as this is legal services. I am not in a position to provide the information you requested,” said a spokesperson for the council in an email dated 13 October.

Fianna Fáil local councillor PJ Kelly previously raised concerns about the local authority’s legal expenditure from 2019 to 2021 at a council meeting held on 12 December, 2022. 

“This is an awful lot of money. A neighbouring council has an in-house solicitor costing a fraction of this money,” said councillor Kelly following confirmation that the local authority had paid just more €2 million to Michael Houlihan & Partners for legal fees over the previous three years. 

Last year, Michael Houlihan & Partners merged with another firm to form MHP Sellors.

That year the legal practice was awarded a new contract for “multi-disciplinary and property, estates and conveyancing legal services” with Clare County Council following a tender process.

On its website MHP Sellors notes it has “been the standing retained solicitors to Clare County Council since 1976”.

Earlier this month, in an effort to establish the actual legal fees incurred in 2022, The Ditch submitted a new freedom of information request to the council seeking a copy of all invoices it received from Michael Houlihan & Partners. 

A decision on that request is expected in the next three weeks.

The Ditch editors

The Ditch editors