Friday 23 February 2018

Huge legal bill looms for Kerins after losing her High Court challenge over PAC 'witch hunt'

Ms Kerins had claimed 'bullying, harassment and persecution' led by members of the PAC during two committee hearings forced her to attempt suicide. Photo: Collins Courts
Ms Kerins had claimed 'bullying, harassment and persecution' led by members of the PAC during two committee hearings forced her to attempt suicide. Photo: Collins Courts
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

Former Rehab Group chief executive Angela Kerins is facing the prospect of a massive legal bill after failing in a High Court action against the Dáil Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

A hearing next month will determine who should bear the costs of the case, which could amount to at least €500,000 after 10 days of hearings last year.

Ms Kerins had claimed "bullying, harassment and persecution" led by members of the PAC during two committee hearings forced her to attempt suicide. She sued for damages and sought declarations that the PAC's activities were unlawful and tainted by bias, alleging it pursued a vendetta, or 'witch-hunt', against her.

Ms Kerins (58) claimed the committee acted outside its jurisdiction and sought a direction from the court that all references to her be removed from the PAC record.

She claimed she lost her job as chief executive of the charity and commercial group, and that her Constitutional rights were breached as a result of the committee's conduct.

In a ruling yesterday, a three-judge divisional court comprising High Court President Peter Kelly, Ms Justice Isobel Kennedy and Mr Justice Seamus Nooan accepted many things were said that were damaging to her personal and professional reputation.

"It would appear that almost every facet of Ms Kerins's involvement with the Rehab Group was subjected to criticism," their judgment said.

However, the court found these did not amount to findings of fact against her.

It also ruled that it could not interfere with free speech in parliament, which is protected by Article 15.13 of the Constitution.

Ms Kerins was not in court for the ruling but in a statement she said she was "very disappointed by the decision". She thanked her family, friends and legal team for their support.

Ms Kerins said she would not make any decision on what to do next until she had reviewed the judgment with her legal advisers.

The high-profile case arose out of two PAC hearings in 2014, when the committee was investigating the State-funded charity sector.

Ms Kerins attended the first one, a seven-hour hearing on February 27, but was too ill to go to the second one on April 10. Much of the questioning at the first hearing focused on her €240,000 salary, her pension and other benefits, including a car.

The court said she was not given advance notice of much of what was put to her. But it found - contrary to protestations Ms Kerins felt compelled to attend - that she had gone to the committee voluntarily.

The court said during the first hearing Ms Kerins was "accused of being stubborn in maintaining a position that the PAC was not to meddle, interfere or ask questions that Rehab deemed inappropriate."

It said questions were put to her which implied she had "no concept of accountability or responsibility".

Ms Kerins had claimed that comments made by TDs were "some form of adjudication or determination" against her.

However, the court found comments made by TDs were in reality clear expressions of opinion devoid of any legal force.

"They were no more than utterances and as such Article 15.13 has the effect of ousting the court's jurisdiction," the court said.

"The essence of the applicant's case is a claim for damages arising from those utterances which seeks to make the Oireachtas respondents amenable to the jurisdiction of the court. That cannot be done."

The judgment said the Constitution guaranteed freedom of speech in parliament, not to protect parliamentarians, but the democratic process itself.

The court will hear submissions on costs and what orders, if any, it needs to make on February 21.

Irish Independent

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