Saturday 24 August 2019

Declaring PAC acted unlawfully would have a 'chilling effect'

Angela Kerins. Photo: Collins Courts
Angela Kerins. Photo: Collins Courts

Tim Healy

A declaration by the Supreme Court that the Dáil Public Accounts Committee acted unlawfully towards former Rehab Group chief executive Angela Kerins would have a "chilling" effect on the work of parliamentary committees, lawyers for the State and PAC have told the court.

The seven-judge court yesterday reserved its final decision on Ms Kerins's appeal over her treatment at two PAC hearings in February and April 2014.

It decided last February the PAC had acted outside its jurisdiction in its conduct of the hearings and the court can intervene.

It must now decide whether or not to declare the PAC conducted the hearings outside the scope of its invitation to Ms Kerins to attend before it and acted unlawfully "as a whole".

Paul Gallagher SC, for the PAC, said it accepts the court's "significant" earlier findings but urged the judges against declaring unlawful action.

The PAC maintains the conduct of the two hearings did not substantially deviate from the scope of the invitation to Ms Kerins to attend before it, Mr Gallagher said. It was clear from their opening statements Ms Kerins and other Rehab attendees understood what was going to be asked, including about salaries and corporate governance.

A reference in invitations to "outcomes and out-turns" covered issues concerning value for money for the €83m in public funds being paid by the HSE to Rehab to provide disability services, Mr Gallagher said. Salaries fell within those issues.

Noting the court has also to decide whether the Dáil, rather than individual members of the PAC, is the appropriate defendant, he said any such declaration against the Dáil, in its capacity as having responsibility for the committee, would be a "very serious and significant" declaration.

Mr Gallagher said the court cannot analyse the utterances in terms of their "tone and motivation" or the overall atmosphere of the PAC hearings as that would have a "chilling effect" on how the Oireachtas conducts its business, he said. Arising from the proceedings by Ms Kerins and a separate case by businessman Denis O'Brien, steps have been taken by the Oireachtas itself to address concerns about the conduct of committees, he added.

Maurice Collins SC, for the State, said the court should not take the "very serious, significant and unprecedented" next step of making a declaration of unlawful action by the PAC.

The court has already laid down a "significant marker" for the conduct of parliamentary committees and does not need to go further, he argued.

The court should now set "clear guidelines" so the Houses of the Oireachtas will know exactly where the line is beyond which actions of parliamentary committees are justiciable, he urged.

In arguments for Ms Kerins, John Rogers SC argued there was "material departure" from the invitation to attend before the PAC and the court should so find.

Ms Kerins had been invited to discuss limited matters, including remuneration, but it was "open season" on her when she got there. At the second PAC hearing, which she did not attend due to illness, she was not afforded the basic rights of an examinee, he said.

Irish Independent

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