Tuesday 20 February 2018

PAC: 'We are not to blame for Angela Kerins's suicide bid'

Angela Kerins Picture: Collins Courts
Angela Kerins Picture: Collins Courts
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

The Dáil Public Accounts Committee accepts no responsibility for a suicide attempt by former Rehab Group chief executive Angela Kerins, the High Court has been told.

Ms Kerins revealed last week she felt forced to take her own life following "harassment and bullying" she alleges was led by members of the high-profile committee.

However, counsel for the PAC has rejected her allegation that the committee's behaviour triggered the suicidal episode.

Paul Gallagher SC said that while the committee was conscious of, and sympathetic to, the "serious difficulties" experienced by Ms Kerins, it did not accept any responsibility.

He was speaking as the PAC began its defence of a High Court action being taken by Ms Kerins. She is suing the committee, the State and the Attorney General, and is seeking damages after suffering a collapse in health and losing her job in the aftermath of an appearance before the PAC in 2014.

The court heard Ms Kerins is also seeking to have references to herself and her employment by Rehab removed from transcripts of committee hearings.

Mr Gallagher said Ms Kerins was seeking "unprecedented" powers to alter Dáil records.

The relief sought was "entirely novel" and had "never been asked for before", he said.

The three-judge court has previously heard claims by Ms Kerins that PAC members engaged in "a vendetta" against her, displayed bias and sought to destroy her reputation.

Mr Gallagher said counsel for Ms Kerins had "made one suggestion after another" that comments made by PAC members were "untrue or misleading".

The barrister said the committee entirely rejected these claims. He also said that while distasteful remarks were sometimes made in parliament, the right to absolute privilege trumped any right the courts may have to intervene.

The court was told Article 15.13 of the Constitution stated that members of the Oireachtas shall not, in respect of anything they say in either the Dáil or Seanad, be amenable to any court or authority other than the House itself.

Mr Gallagher said that what the court was being asked to do was to "make them amenable".

The barrister said free debate in the Oireachtas was protected by absolute privilege and that the PAC enjoyed the same protections.

He said this sometimes meant there may be comment in the Dáil which impugns a person's character or that may be uncomfortable.

However, Mr Gallagher said privilege meant people had to "put up with the aspects that are distasteful".

Parliament, he said, was designed so that issues of concern to TDs and their constituents can be aired, debated and discussed. There was an international acceptance of the right to free speech in a parliament, counsel said.

High Court President Mr Justice Peter Kelly observed that the case being made by Mr Gallagher was that "the most monstrous things" may be said which may be untrue or damaging to a person's reputation, but because of absolute privilege it was not a matter for the courts.

Mr Gallagher said the former Rehab chief executive's case was that the courts have some sort of oversight function over Dáil debates and could intervene to edit the record if someone's good name is impugned.

He said that if Ms Kerins's complaints were upheld, it would mean free speech would not be free anymore.

Earlier, judges viewing a video extract of a hearing on April 10, 2014, which Ms Kerins did not attend due to ill health.

They also heard a recording of a radio interview with then committee member Shane Ross in which he said the PAC had received legal advice that it could not compel Ms Kerins or another former Rehab chief executive, Frank Flannery, to attend hearings.

Irish Independent

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