Third-level colleges have spent more than €5m in legal fees since 2006, according to documents seen by the Sunday Tribune.

The documents detail the amount that each of the country's seven universities have paid – but the figures exclude settlement costs which are likely to be much higher. The worst offender on the list is University College Cork which has racked up a substantial €1.4m in legal costs. Coming in at a close second is Trinity College, Dublin, with €919,300.

At the bottom rung of the ladder is University College Dublin (UCD), which has recorded €228,630.

The Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) general secretary Mike Jennings said the figures represented a massive waste of money in the sector and would spell the beginning of difficulties when funding was sought in future.

"The university sector is on its knees at the moment and I think anyone working in these institutions realises the full extent of these unprecedented difficulties. However, given that our minister for education is already an unsympathetic man when it comes to our funding, this is further ammunition to dig the knife in even more. It is reckless spending the likes of which has not been seen before."

Jennings anticipates that the full extent of the figures will not be known until roughly 2010 by which time a large number of invoices and settlements will have cleared.

In the experience of the IFUT, the majority of cases brought before barristers and the courts are "simply not necessary". The Sunday Tribune reported two weeks ago that a long-standing Supreme Court case over the dismissal of a DCU lecturer could end up costing a massive €2m. A High Court judgment two years ago found that DCU should not have dismissed Professor Paul Cahill.