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Tuesday 5 December 2023 Dublin: 4°C
Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland File Photo

Over €123,000 paid out incorrectly in 'on-call' allowances to Courts Service staff

A separate audit warned of “reputational damage” over working time breaches.

MORE THAN €123,000 WAS paid out in on-call allowances to Courts Service staff that should not have been paid, according to an internal audit.

The audit found that on-call allowances should only be paid in offices where there was a minimum of 12 callouts for out-of-hours or emergency court sittings each year.

However, the inquiry found multiple instances of money being paid out when this had not happened.

The audit report questioned whether the allowances should now be recouped. It said the overpayments had happened in an average of six offices annually with a “number of the same offices featuring each year” for the incorrect payments.

The audit also discovered that a separate agreement, in place for staff at one office in Co Galway, had never been properly implemented.

Under the deal, some staff had their positions upgraded providing that payment of an on-call or callout allowance to them would cease.

The report said, “But this has never been implemented and the allowances continue to be paid.”

The audit also raised concerns over the online claim system for allowance payments, which they said risked error or fraud and was not configured to pick up duplicate or invalid payments.

This meant some staff in Dublin were paid rates that applied to provincial colleagues and “resulted in overpayments”, the report stated.

The review also found claimants only needed to enter dates for an on-call or callout allowance with no further detail required.

“The system will allow duplicate claims and will also allow claimants claim multiple on-call allowances for the same week,” according to the audit report.

The person approving the allowances could see none of the details behind the claim, nor were they obliged to verify them for accuracy.

The audit said “no assurance” could be provided that the Courts Service were compliant with government instructions on payment of allowances. 

In a management response, the Courts Service said they had significant concerns over ending allowance payments to staff around the country because it was already very difficult to get staff to volunteer for such duties.

‘Reputational damage’

Meanwhile, a separate audit of allowances paid to court ushers and criers found breaches of rules around how much time they should be working.

It said some of them were being asked to work an “excessive number of hours” and that mandatory rest periods were not being provided.

Rules for payments of allowances were not being applied correctly and in some cases, workers had been paid less than they were entitled to because of rounding errors.

A system where judges signed off on extra hours was also queried.

“There is … a risk that claim forms could be amended after they had been signed by the judge and would not be identified,” the report said.

This risk is increased by the fact that there is currently no way of independently verifying extra attendance hours claimed against other records.

An analysis of working hours showed fourteen cases where ushers or criers had worked at least 48 hours a week over a four-month period.

They also often worked through lunch and at weekends, which raised health and safety risks especially when “one of the main duties … is to drive his/her judge’s car”.

The report warned of “reputational damage” if the Courts Service ended up being sued and was found to be in breach of working time legislation.

‘Control gaps’

A third internal audit of overtime also identified a number of “significant control gaps” in the system for recording working hours for some staff in Dublin.

It said tracking attendance books for opening and closing buildings, calling out to attend to alarms and other scenarios was not possible with the amount of information provided.

A spokesman for the Courts Service said internal auditors operate independently within their organisation to identify best practice and shortcomings.

He said, “All of the high priority recommendations made from our own internal audit system, were put in place and are working.”

The spokesman said issues around on-call allowances reflected industrial relations agreements and the fact that access to justice operated on a 24/7 basis.

He said, “The costs of the out of hour sittings represent a cost-efficient means to operate out of hours court sittings.”

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