Wednesday 21 August 2019

€1m bill for taxpayer as PAC found to have acted unlawfully against Kerins

Court appeal: Angela Kerins claimed she lost her job as Rehab Group chief executive and had her constitutional rights breached by members of the Public Accounts Committee. PHOTO: COLLINS COURTS
Court appeal: Angela Kerins claimed she lost her job as Rehab Group chief executive and had her constitutional rights breached by members of the Public Accounts Committee. PHOTO: COLLINS COURTS
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

The taxpayer can expect to foot a €1m legal costs bill after the Supreme Court found the Dáil Public Accounts Committee (PAC) acted unlawfully in its treatment of former Rehab Group chief executive Angela Kerins.

The bill could rise even further if Ms Kerins decides to pursue a claim for damages in the wake of the court's ruling.

But the ramifications of the seven-judge court's decision go much further than the cost to the taxpayer. It will have a significant impact on the manner in which Oireachtas committees conduct their business in future.

Ms Kerins sued the PAC, its clerk, the clerk of the Dáil, Ireland and the Attorney General over her treatment at two PAC meetings in 2014, the first of which she attended and the second of which she didn't.

She alleged "bullying, harassment and persecution", led by members of the PAC, forced her to attempt suicide.

Ms Kerins claimed she lost her job of eight years as chief executive of the charity and commercial group and had her constitutional rights breached as a result of the conduct of the committee.

A major plank of her case was that PAC members knowingly acted outside their remit, seeking commercial information and details of private earnings, rather than inquiring solely into Rehab serviced paid for by the HSE and Solas.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court found it had the power to declare the PAC acted unlawfully, if it "as a whole" acted outside its remit and breached the terms of the invitation it extended to Ms Kerins to appear before it.

The court sought further submissions on this and gave its final ruling yesterday.

In its ruling, the court said that while quite a number of the members of the PAC concentrated their questions on issues within the scope of the invitation, it seemed clear at least three members, including then chairman John McGuinness, engaged in questioning which went significantly outside the scope of the invitation.

The court said it was reasonable to infer the PAC acted in unison. There was no evidence of any resistance of any sort by other members, whether formal or informal, with the course of action adopted.

Reading from the ruling, Chief Justice Frank Clarke said, in the circumstances, the court would grant a declaration that, by conducting a public hearing in a manner which was significantly outside of its terms of reference and which also departed significantly from the terms of the invitation issued to Ms Kerins, the PAC unlawfully.

The decision means Ms Kerins may now pursue a further action for damages in the High Court. In a statement, she said she was "very pleased" with the outcome, but would not be commenting further until she had considered the judgment in detail with her legal advisers. She thanked her family, friends and her legal team, which included Eames Solicitors and former attorney general John Rogers SC, for their "unrelenting support and guidance".

"It was an enormous decision for me to take this case and I could not have done it without them," she said.

Mr Justice Clarke said the Supreme Court intended to award Ms Kerins both her costs in an earlier unsuccessful High Court action and her successful Supreme Court appeal. Ms Kerins lost the High Court case and had to pay a third of her costs under that ruling. The High Court ruled utterances made in parliament were protected by Article 15.13 of the Constitution and could not be adjudicated on by the court.

However, the Supreme Court found it could intervene where "there has been a significant and unremedied unlawful action on the part of a committee".

It also set aside the High Court costs ruling, although this can be opposed by the PAC. Lawyers for the committee have until tomorrow to lodge an objection on the costs issue. Despite its findings, the Supreme Court has signalled Ms Kerins might not necessarily be entitled to damages.

In its previous ruling in the case, it pointed out "it by no means would necessarily follow from a decision of this court to the effect that the PAC had acted unlawfully that Ms Kerins would be entitled to damages. A whole range of issues would need to be considered". In reaching this conclusion it put significant weight on the need to protect the entitlement to secure freedom of speech within the Houses of the Oireachtas.

Irish Independent

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