Sunday 25 February 2018

Courts should be slow to interfere with functions of PAC

Angela Kerins Picture: Collins Courts
Angela Kerins Picture: Collins Courts

Tim Healy

The State has argued the courts should be “very slow” to make any order in the legal challenge by former Rehab CEO Angela Kerins that might impact on how the Dail Public Accounts Committee (PAC) functions.

The PAC has a significant role in relation to the Dail’s discharge of its duty to control public expenditure and there is a significant public interest in the discharge of its functions, Maurice Collins SC, for the State, said.

Ms Kerins’ case was substantially about damages and she was seeking to make TDs on the PAC amenable, in “direct violation” of the Constitution, for their statements at public hearings concerning the use of public funds paid to Rehab companies.

Her case for damages against the State was grounded on her claim it was vicariously liable for the actions of PAC. The court was being asked to “parse” questions put to Ms Kerins by PAC, analyse their tenor and tone, and read into them a motivation for asking them, he said.

This was “impermissible” under Article 15 of the Constitution - which provides that utterances by members of the Oireachtas are privileged.  

What was going on before the PAC was not an inquiry or tribunal such as might attract the rights claimed by Ms Kerins and the court could not review the PAC in the same way it could review decisions of a lower court or tribunal.

A three judge High Court is continuing to hear arguments over whether the PAC had jurisdiction to conduct two hearings concerning public funds paid to Rehab companies.

Ms Kerins claims the hearings on February 27 and April 10 2014 amounted to an unlawful “witchhunt” against her outside PAC’s jurisdiction.

She claims she was so overwhelmed after the February 27 hearing she attempted to take her life on March 14th with the effect she was unable to attend the April 10 hearing.

She wants damages on grounds including alleged personal injury, loss of reputation and loss of career.

PAC argues it had jurisdiction to conduct the hearings as it did and is entitled to scrutinise how public funds are spent.

In closing arguments for PAC yesterday, Paul Gallagher SC said the case was legally misconceived as an argument over jurisdiction but, if the court pursues that issue, PAC had the necessary jurisdiction and any “errors” by it did not carry it outside jurisdiction.

He said Ms Kerins appeared voluntarily before the Committee on February 27, 2014, raised many of the issues she now complains about, and told it she was glad to provide information about the services provided by Rehab.

Noting criticism of PAC Chairman John McGuinness over agreeing to meet Ms Kerins before the February 27 hearing, Mr Gallagher said that meeting was at her request to assist her in advance of the hearing, a step frequently done with others appearing before PAC. The meeting was lawful and permissible as PAC had no statutory function.

In reply to Mr Justice Peter Kelly, counsel agreed the meeting was “perhaps unwise”.

Beginning closing arguments for Ms Kerins, John Rogers SC said this was an “appalling vista” case which showed “grievous” damage could be done to the good name and reputation of a person who appeared before a Dail Committee.

The PAC acted totally without jurisdiction and outside Dail Standing Orders in its treatment of Ms Kerins and the necessary privileges and immunities were not triggered because PAC failed to take the necessary steps to do so, he argued. Ms Kerins also had no remedy under Dail standing orders for her treatment before the Committee.

The hearing continues.

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