Wednesday 16 January 2019

Angela Kerins' case over treatment by Public Accounts Committee of 'singular importance' for all citizens - Supreme Court hears

Angela Kerins pictured arriving at the Four Courts yesterday for the opening day of a Supreme Court action
Photo: Collins Courts
Angela Kerins pictured arriving at the Four Courts yesterday for the opening day of a Supreme Court action Photo: Collins Courts

Tim Healy

Former Rehab CEO Angela Kerins’ case over her treatment by the Dail Public Accounts Committee is of “singular importance” for all citizens and the State and the outcome will “have resonance for years”, the Supreme Court has been told.

Ms Kerins’ experience before the PAC  “changed her life for ever”, John Rogers SC said. She had experienced great distress over how she was treated but, if the court decided there was a remedy for such treatment, her experience would not have been in vain.

This case was one where not just the parties but the State and citizens will “have to live with the outcome”, he said.

It concerned the rights of citizens when appearing before, and engaging with parliament and through its committees, and whether or not a citizen who suffered what Ms Kerins  did has a remedy.

The transcript of the hearings was replete with “mean”, “deeply wounding”, “extremely damaging” and hyper critical remarks by members of PAC about Ms Kerins’ involvement with Rehab and her salary, including remarks accusing her of being evasive in her answers, telling her  to “get a grip” on herself and suggesting information had to be “dragged out” of her.

The PAC had no role in relation to probing payments made by Rehab but that was what it ended up doing, he said. While it was maintained  this was a non-adjudicative procedure, that was “highly questionable”.

Mr Rogers was opening Ms Kerins’ appeal today before a seven judge Supreme Court over the rejection of her case.

Ms Kerins claims two PAC hearings on February 27th and April 10th 2014, where questions were asked about her €240,000 annual salary and other matters, amounted to a “witch hunt” against her. She attended the first hearing on a voluntary basis and said the treatment she experienced was such she was too unwell to attend the second.

The PAC denied a witch hunt and argued it was entitled to scrutinise how public funds are spent when some €80m public monies are paid annually to Rehab companies.

In January 2017 a three judge High Court decided, because the Constitution confers absolute privilege on "utterances" in the Oireachtas, and the PAC was making no "determination" in relation to Ms Kerins, the courts cannot intervene in relation to how the two hearings were conducted.

The court was critical of the conduct of aspects of the hearing but said, if Oireachtas members were constrained in their speech as Ms Kerins alleged, "the effective functioning of parliament would be impaired in a manner expressly forbidden in absolute terms by the Constitution".

In permitting an appeal directly to the court rather than the normal route via the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court said the case met the necessary "exceptional" circumstances for such an appeal because it involved a "very important issue of constitutional law".

The issues raised include the legal safeguards available to witnesses who appear before the PAC in a voluntary capacity; the role, if any, the court has in protecting such witnesses in circumstances where there are the important issues of freedom of speech in the legislature, the separation of powers and the extent to which the courts may intervene in the affairs of the legislature.

The Supreme Court will also address whether the High Court correctly concluded that Article 15 of the Constitution means parliamentarians cannot be sued over what they say in the Oireachtas or its Committees.

The Supreme Court also said the interests of justice are engaged because the High Court, despite its finding Ms Kerins was damaged personally and professionally by actions of the PAC, ruled there was no legal remedy for the wrongs perpetuated.  Because the Constitution  guarantees to vindicate the personal rights of citizens, the issue of safeguarding  such rights meets the criteria of the interest of justice, it said.

The Oireachtas and State parties contend Ms Kerins’ case  involves an “unprecedented challenge” to parliamentary speech.

The Supreme Court will also hear PAC’s cross-appeal against the High Court’s decision directing it to pay two thirds of Ms Kerins’ estimated €700,000 legal costs arising from that court’s concerns about the conduct of the PAC hearings.

The State has also cross-appealed a decision requiring it to pay its own costs of the High Court hearing.

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