The Health Service Executive initiated 20 per cent more childcare cases last year than it did in 2011, according to new data released under the Freedom of Information Acts.
Last year 3,900 cases had been opened, compared to 3,234 in 2011, according to information supplied to The Irish Times .
At the end of last December, 6,332 children were in care, including residential and foster care, compared to 6,160 at the end of 2011.
Legal action taken by the HSE in the area of childcare chiefly involved the provision of full, interim and emergency care orders as well as supervision orders and special care orders under the Child Care Act 1991.
Childcare cases cost the HSE more than €23.5 million in legal fees up to the end of last November. The HSE awarded a contract for legal services to Arthur Cox in March 2011 and last year it paid the company more than €15 million in total. About 60 per cent of that figure – or more than €9 million – related to childcare costs.
Felix McEnroy SC, who was the highest-paid barrister working in the field of childcare on behalf of the HSE, was paid almost €1.3 million for the first 11 months of last year, the figures show.
His earnings were three-and-a-half times greater than the second highest earning barrister, Peter Finlay SC, who was paid just over €380,000.
The average earnings of 50 other barristers who worked for the HSE last year was €15,400.
Mr McEnroy’s payments from the HSE have increased dramatically over the past five years. He was paid just under €600,000 by the organisation between 2007 and 2009.
Other solicitors directly employed by the HSE earned more than €2.2 million in total and third-party solicitors’ fees totalled almost €600,000.
More than €6 million was paid by the HSE for guardians ad litem, independent people appointed by the court to represent the wishes and interests of children in court proceedings.
Some €2.8 million of this went to children’s charity Barnardos.
The remainder was shared among more than 30 others, including Celbridge Counselling Service, which received more than €400,000.
Child rapporteur Geoffrey Shannon said there could be a number of reasons for the increase in cases opened by the HSE last year, including variations in data collection.
He said he would be concerned if the number of children being taken into care had increased in the same way.
“The question is whether sufficient efforts are being made to support families,” he said.
If there were more early interventions and front-loaded supports there would be less need for legal action, he said.
The issues will have to be “robustly addressed” by the new Child and Family Support Agency, which will subsume the childcare functions of the HSE, the Family Support Agency and the National Educational Welfare Board.
Mr Shannon said a comprehensive audit was needed in relation to legal costs.
A spokeswoman for the HSE said significant savings had accrued from measures taken including the introduction of a standard charge rate for the payment of fees to counsel.
It had also introduced an in-house office of legal services with four staff to oversee legal services provided.