Each year the HSE is obliged to publish its Annual Report and Financial Statements for the preceding year. It has just done so for 2019.
This year we read that it spent €17.9 million on Legal Fees & Legal Proceedings with a further €1.6 million on Settlements and a mere €97 thousand on Conciliation and Arbitration.
This comes to a total of €19.6 million which is an increase from its 2018 spend of €18.7 million in the same categories.
In fairness, if you can call it that, this is a massive drop from the amount the HSE paid out in fees in 2013; a staggering €44million.
But even that was a drop from the €46 million it shelled out in fees in 2012.
Now some people might be thinking, surely that is a good thing?
Does it not point to a determined effort on the part of the HSE to scale back on the enormous legal fees that were being handed out like snuff at a wake?
The short, and the long answer for that matter, is no.
To see how this is the case we need only recall, as Adam Higgins did in his Sun article on the matter last year, that the massive drop in fees from 2013 onwards only took place because after the Child and Family Agency, TUSLA, became responsible for legal costs associated with childcare.
Up to that point the HSE had been picking up the tab.
Higgins also makes the point that over the course of the decade 2008-2018 the HSE spent an eyewatering €285million on Settlements and Legal Fees.
Among the other costs mentioned in this years Report is the incredible €73,367 million to cover Travel and the Subsistence Allowances for HSE staff.
The context here of course is that the HSE is the largest employer in the State, with more than 67,000 direct employees.
Having said that the scale of the Travel and Subsistence fees has been grabbing attention for many years now.
Back in 2012, the HSE was subjected to a grilling before the Dáil Public Accounts Committee when it was shown that it had spent €55.32 million in travel and subsistence allowances to 28,983 staff.
Few lessons appear to have been learned from that experience, however.
As Joe Leogue pointed out over at the Examiner in 2018, an audit of 2 HSE Community Healthcare Organisation (CHO) Areas revealed 25 findings that posed “a significant risk of substantial financial loss, accounting error, major non-compliance” with policies or regulations.
All of which were potentially “systemic issues.”
In fact the HSE staff in the 2 CHO Areas had managed to rack up travel and subsistence claims across the two areas to the tune of €3.9m in 2015.
It is the issue of legal costs however that has been a major source of contention for very many ordinary people who just cannot get their head around how such massive fees are generated in the first place.
They are not the only ones.
At the level of the legal profession itself, the Office of The Taxing Master, now called the Office of the Legal Costs Adjudicators, has repeatedly tried to rein in exorbitant and unjustifiable legal fees among the bewigged fraternity.
We are now (wearily) assured that following legislative changes “the charging of legal fees that are grossly excessive will be a matter of professional misconduct.”
We will wait and see.
There has been many a false dawn when it comes to subjecting the fees of our friends in the Law Library to anything like the kind of accountability regarding costs that would most people would deem a basic minimum.
The 2019 HSE Report can be accessed on the HSE website here