UCD spent €236,859 on legal fees in cases and disputes they contested with their own members of staff last year. This figure represents a 300% increase in legal costs from the €77,176 spent in the previous 2013/14 academic year on cases involving university staff.
The majority of the costs are believed to be due to UCD hiring top legal representatives to contest staff claims relating to their employment contracts.
Mike Jennings, the General Secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers said UCD appears to be “deliberately harsh” in dealing with claims made to the college by their own members of staff. The IFUT representative stated the practice in UCD when faced with a staff complaint over their contract is to “reach for the chequebook and go to the most expensive lawyers in the country” to fight it.
The lengths to which UCD and other colleges go in order to contest staff claims is a “shameful waste of public funds” according to Jennings. The union representative felt the practice was a “deliberate message from the university to staff” to discourage people questioning their employment rights.
Jennings’ trade union, IFUT represents academic staff in legal cases with their universities, or disputes with college Human Resources departments. He said “industrial relations is about reasonable accommodation” but that colleges have “given up on reasonable accommodation”, and instead prefer to refer disputes to legal consultants and lawyers.
The sharp rise in the amount of money spent by colleges on legal cases with staff is particularly outrageous given the current funding crisis across third-level education claimed Jennings. “Colleges are dying on their feet; this is not cost effective … the sheer waste is outrageous” stated the IFUT general secretary.
In comparison Trinity College Dublin spent just €34,860 on legal cases and disputes with its members of staff in 2015, and €25,889 in 2014.
Education Minister Richard Bruton revealed the figures of UCD’s legal costs following a parliamentary query from Fine Gael TD Jim Daly, of Cork South-West. Daly spoke to the Tribune to say the figures represented “an alarming increase in such costs.”
Daly continued to claim that “the sector is struggling to survive and yet saw a 300% increase in legal fees … I am now seeking answers as to why there was such a dramatic increase and the underlying reasons.”
A spokesperson from UCD stated in response to a query from the Tribune that the “increase in legal fees over the period is not a trend but rather relates to particular cases.”
Over the last five years the total amount spent on legal representatives defending the university against its own staff has been just under half a million euro at €453,754. The substantive 2015 legal sum of €236,859 was greater than the previous four years combined. The college spent €70,971 in the year 2010/11, €56,418 in 2011/12, just €12,331 over 2012/13, and then €77,176 the year before last 2013/14.
Alongside the legal fees UCD pays to lawyers and legal consultants, the college also employ 60 people in the Human Resources (HR) Department to deal with staff employment claims and issues. The HR Department in UCD is one of the largest in the college’s administration. The HR unit in UCD employed 64 people in 2008, dropping to 58 members of staff in 2012, before rising back up again to employ 65 people in 2013, and 60 as of 2015. This is a high level of staff retention despite decreasing state funding to the university, and comes as Tribune investigations reveal Library staff have been cut by 36% and Access Centre staff numbers are down by more than 60%.
Aside from fees UCD pay to legal consultants and lawyers in defending the university against its own staff over employment contracts, there have also been high profile cases brought against UCD on other grounds, such as gender discrimination.
In 2007 Eleanor O’Higgins, a senior lecturer in the School of Business and Law applied for a promotion to the position of Professor through UCD’s internal ‘promotion pathways’ system, but was unsuccessful. She was unsatisfied with the reasons for her rejection, and brought a claim of gender discrimination to the Equality Tribunal. But the Equality Tribunal rejected her claim, and O’Higgins then brought a case to the Labour Court on the issue, who also ruled that UCD had rebutted the presumption of discrimination on the grounds of her gender.
The business and management lecturer then took UCD, and the Labour Court to the High Court. The High Court case was heard by Mr Justice Cooke in 2013, where he ruled there was no error of law on the part of UCD or the Labour Court. The judge noted that “the arguments advanced [by O’Higgins] amount to an assertion that the Labour Court should have come to a different conclusion on the factual evidence before it”, and he dismissed O’Higgins’ appeal.
The €236,859 figure that UCD spent on legal costs last year is only in cases involving its staff. The college is also embroiled in a separate legal dispute over the construction of the new Sutherland School of Law building, which was completed in 2013. The company BAM are a construction firm who were hired by UCD to build the new Law school; a project valued at €14 million. However, reports the Tribune have obtained from the Governing Authority of UCD from back in 2013 show the construction group escalated their claims for payment, based on additional design changes and program disruption.
The then UCD President Hugh Brady stated in UCD documentation that “the University is intent on resisting any unsubstantiated contractor claims in order to ensure that the development budget is not exceeded… it is unlikely that this will be resolved anytime soon.” The dispute was this summer brought to the Commercial Courts by the construction firm BAM. The Commercial Court deals with business claims that exceed €1 million.
The comparative amount spent on legal fees last year in cases involving members of staff varied across other universities. NUI Galway spent €121,515 on legal fees involving disputes with staff, while UCC amassed a €619,400 bill for 2015. Maynooth only amounted €82,069 in legal costs, and University of Limerick paid out €99,372 to legal consultants and lawyers. DCU were on the lower end of the scale, and only ran up legal costs of €62,752 last year, while Trinity by far spent the least on legal issues or cases involving their staff at just €34,860 in 2015.
Jack Power | Editor
Tribune News Editor Cian Carton also contributed to the reporting of this piece.