The father of R116 Captain Dara Fitzpatrick who died along with three other crew members in a helicopter crash in 2017 has welcomed the announcement by Transport Minister Eamon Ryan that his Department will cover the legal costs of families who were represented at an enquiry relating to the accident.

"It's a great relief that this has happened," John Fitzpatrick told RTÉ Investigates.

"I am delighted and I am sure all the other families are delighted." He described the original position of the Department regarding their application for legal costs as "an absolute insult."

Pilot Dara Fitzpatrick, co-pilot Mark Duffy and winchman Ciarán Smith along with winch operator Paul Ormsby lost their lives when their search and rescue helicopter R116 crashed into Black Rock island off the coast of Mayo in March 2017.

The families hired legal teams to represent the interests of the deceased crew during hearings of a Review Board, which was established last year by then Transport Minister Shane Ross.

The Board was tasked with re-examining certain conclusions and findings of an Air Accident Investigation Unit (AAIU) draft report on the accident that had been challenged by helicopter operator CHC Ireland.

Pilot Dara Fitzpatrick, co-pilot Mark Duffy, winch operator Paul Ormsby and winchman Ciarán Smith lost their lives

Fearful that attempts could be made during the Review to attach blame for the accident to any of the deceased crew, the families of Ms Fitzpatrick, Mr Duffy and Mr Smith hired legal counsel to represent the deceased trio at the Review Board hearings.

As highlighted on Wednesday by RTÉ Investigates, the Department of Transport strongly opposed applications to the Review Board by the families’ legal teams to have their costs covered.

This meant that the families were facing potential legal bills of hundreds of thousands of euro.

However, in a statement released on Thursday evening, Minister Ryan said he had "written to the families of the crew of R116 this afternoon to let them know that the Department of Transport will cover their reasonable legal expenses incurred as a result of the Review into the accident in which their loved ones lost their lives."

He added that the Chairman of the Review board had written to him to recommend that "the reasonable legal costs of the families be covered" and that he was "happy to accept this recommendation" and had asked his officials "to work on a mechanism to resolve the issue."

Helicopter R116 crashed into Blackrock Island off the coast of Mayo in March 2017

Minister Ryan was questioned in the Dáil earlier on Thursday about the issue. In response to a question from Sinn Féin TD Pearse Doherty, Minister Ryan said there had been no objection by the state to the families applications to the Review Board to have their costs covered.

"It would be scandalous if we were fighting against paying such costs, but it’s not true," he said.

These statements appear to be contradicted by the written ruling on costs by Review Board chairman and sole member, barrister Patrick McCann.

In the unpublished ruling, which has been seen by RTÉ Investigates, Mr McCann wrote: "By way of a letter dated the 7 May 2021 the Minister indicated that he might wish to make a submission to the Board on the issue of costs."

In his letter to the Board, dated 26 May 2021, the Minister stated his view, on the advice of the Office of the Attorney General, was that the Board did not have the power to make an award of costs to any party against any other party. The Minister made submissions dated the 15 June 2021 in writing."

The ruling goes on to refer to the main points of the legal argument put forward by the Minister’s representatives.

Eamon Ryan denied that officials for the Department strenuously fought against costs being awarded to families

"The Minister submitted that the Board did not have an implied power to award costs. It was argued that the award of costs, conferring rights and imposing burdens, would be inconsistent with the statutory scheme," it said.

"Second, it was submitted that the power was not necessary to carry out the work of the Board. Third, the power was of a nature that was usually expressly provided for. Fourth, no criteria were provided for the award of costs or the basis of which any award of costs might be made."

In his statement on Thursday, Minister Ryan appeared to roll back on his earlier statement to the Dáil that his Department had not opposed awarding the families legal costs, acknowledging that his Department "argued before the review board that it did not have authority to make an order on costs.

He said, however, that this was done "because of the broader implications that such a ruling might have in future. This was never intended to imply a reluctance to pay these costs, and the additional stress this may have caused is regretted."

He also added that the families "will shortly receive the final report of the investigation into the accident."

The Department of Transport declined to comment on the apparent contradiction, and instead pointed to the press release published earlier in the day, which does not address the matter.

The long-awaited publication of the Air Accident Investigation Unit report will allow the inquest into the deaths of the four crew to be completed. That inquest was adjourned in 2018, pending ongoing investigations.