Saturday 17 March 2018

If Angela Kerins wins damages case, consequences for Oireachtas free speech 'far-reaching', argues PAC

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

The Dail Public Accounts Committee has argued the courts have no power to evaluate statements by some of its members for the purpose of detecting alleged “ruthless hostility” towards former Rehab CEO Angela Kerins so as to ground her claim for damages.

If Ms Kerins wins her case, the consequences for free speech for members of the Oireachtas are "far-reaching", it was also argued.

Ms Kerins is back in the High Court today for the resumption of her challenge over hearings of the PAC concerning payments to the charity.

The three judge court is hearing legal arguments from Paul Gallagher SC, for PAC, on the issue whether PAC had jurisdiction to conduct two hearings on February 27th and April 10th 2014 in the manner it had.

Mr Gallagher argued today the court was being asked to examine transcripts of the hearings to detect alleged “ruthless hostility” towards Ms Kerins from some members of PAC.

There is a significant difference between statements made in the type of proceedings before PAC and the sort of “adjudicative” process which the courts ruled could not be carried out by an Oireachtas tribunal of inquiry into the fatal shooting of John Carthy at Abbeylara, he said.

In this case, the court was being asked to evaluate individual utterances by PAC members and to make them amenable so as to found a claim for damages, he said. This was in circumstances where PAC did not intend to issue any report or to make findings concerning Ms Kerins.

The members of PAC are being sued as TDs who, in serving on the PAC, were carrying out an important constitutional function regarding the Dail's role in monitoring financial matters, he said.

Another factor was Ms Kerins was not compelled to attend the hearings, counsel said. While agreeing with Ms Justice Isobel Kennedy Ms Kerins was not told any by PAC she could leave at any stage, she had legal advice when deciding to attend and had not alleged she believed she had to remain, he said.

Members of Rehab, Ms Kerins’ employer, also turned up voluntarily before the Committee and discussed various matters, counsel said.

PAC is not amenable to the courts over its conduct and had jurisdiction to act as it did, he argued. It was protected from being sued by virtue of the constitutional protection and absolute privilege accorded to “utterances” by members of the Oireachtas.

That protection was intended to protect free speech and encourage open debate and accords with the constitutional separation of powers between the legislative, executive and judiciary, counsel argued.

The court has been asked to decide the jurisdictional issues before any other issues are addressed The hearing was scheduled to conclude last July after six days but, because it ran beyond the allotted time, was adjourned to resume today.

Ms Kerins claims the conduct of the hearings was outside PAC’s jurisdiction and unlawful. She is claiming damages on grounds including alleged personal injury, loss of reputation and loss of career. 

She was so overwhelmed after the February 27th hearing she attempted to take her life on March 14th and was unable to attend the April 10th hearing, it is claimed.

In opposing her case, PAC argues it has an important democratic function to rigorously scrutinise expenditure of public funds and was entitled to know if the public was getting value for “huge” sums of public money paid to Rehab.

The hearing continues.

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