Wednesday 11 December 2019

PAC seeking 'root and branch' review of powers in Angela Kerins case

Angela Kerins
Angela Kerins

The Dail Public Accounts Committee is seeking a "root and branch examination" by the courts concerning its jurisdiction and powers of inquiry, the President of the High Court has said.

John Rogers SC, for former Rehab CEO Angela Kerins, said, while his side believed those issues have already been addressed in judgments including of the Supreme Court halting an Oireachtas sub-committee's inquiry into the shooting dead by gardai of John Carthy at Abbeylara in 2000, he could not object to PAC's application.

In its 5/2 Abbeylara majority decision, the Supreme Court ruled the Oireachtas has no power to conduct an inquiry capable of leading to adverse findings of fact against citizens which would impugn their good names.

Mr Rogers made the remarks at a hearing to consider the wording of questions for determination by the High Court relating to PAC's jurisdiction to question Ms Kerins about issues including payments to Rehab and herself.

Mr Justice Peter Kelly said PAC was effectively arguing for a "root and branch examination" of very fundamental issues concerning its jurisdiction. Due to the importance of those issues, Judge Kelly is convening a three judge or divisional High Court to decide them at a hearing opening on July 13th.

The issues, concerning the nature and scope of PAC's jursidiction to question Ms Kerins and what rights apply to her during such questioning, will be decided prior to the full hearing of her action alleging PAC engaged in a "witchhunt" against her.

In her action, Ms Kerins is seeking orders and damages on foot of claims including PAC acted unlawfully and was guilty of misfeasance (improper misuse of power) in public office, causing distress and injury to her health.

PAC denies her claims and maintains it was entitled to question her in circumstances where 81 per cent of Rehab's income in Ireland was provided by the State. The Committee also agrues it cannot be sued for damages over matters said under privilege.

Ms Kerins appeared for seven hours before PAC on February 27th 2014 and her lawyers said she could not attend a resumed hearing on April 10th 2014 due to ill health. The Dail Committee on Procedures and Privileges later ruled PAC could not compel her attend before it.

On Wednesday, Judge Kelly heard further submissions by Paul Gallagher SC, for PAC, and Mr Rogers about the wording of the jursidiction questions for determination. He will consider the submissions before finalising the wording.

The judge also informed the sides he is chairman of St Francis Hospice in Dublin and it receives HSE funding. His position was voluntary and he received no monies or expenses for it but he was raising the matter should the sides have any objection to his presiding over the divisional court, he said.

Mr Gallagher, Conor Power SC, for the State, and Mr Rogers indicated they did not anticipate objection from their clients.

Rarlier, Mr Gallagher said the issue whether the courts can interfere with PAC is "very important in constitutional terms".  While Ms Kerins relied on judgments including Abbeylara and proceedings by former Senator Ivor Callely in arguig the courts could interfere, the Supreme Court has stressed such cases depend on their own facts, he said.

This case is distinguishable from Abbeylara due to factors inluding PAC does not make findings of fact, he said.

Other issues included, even if PAC was found to have jursidiction, whether it could lose that at a later stage due to the nature of its questioning. His case was it was not possible for an Oireachtas Committee to lose jurisdiction in that way.

A further issue was whether Ms Kerins, having engaged with PAC, essentially acquiesced in its procedures.

Mr Rogers said it appeared PAC could raise these questions but it appeared to be trying to relitigate issues decided in the Abbeylara and Callely judgments.

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