The Supreme Court judgment in the Angela Kerins case could lead to a serious restriction on the scope of Oireachtas committees, a top legal expert has warned.
Trinity College Dublin law professor David Kenny said the likely impact on the freedoms of Oireachtas committees is potentially “very significant”.
He was speaking after the former Rehab boss won a provisional victory against the Dáil Public Accounts Committee (PAC) over her treatment at the hands of committee members at a hearing in 2014.
“I think potentially very significant implications could arise from this,” he said.
“But what is really significant here is the courts have taken a big step in terms of oversight of the Oireachtas committee. They have said that if committees exceed its brief, if it goes beyond its terms of reference, then the courts can review statements to see if they are unlawful if they violate someone’s rights and to see if they can offer that person a remedy.
“That is really significant because before today we would have thought that was not possible because of Oireachtas privilege.”
Politicians from across the Dáil have warned that the judgment, if carried through, will have a “chilling effect” on their ability to hold people to account.
One senior politician described the potential impact of the judgment as “dangerous” for the ability of committees, including the Public Accounts Committee to do their business without the fear of legal challenge.
The Oireachtas officially declined to comment in the wake of the partial judgment delivered by the country’s top court other than to say it is considering the decision.
However, there was considerable disappointment amongst senior officials at the decision.
Given the case has not formally concluded, TDs and senators have been requested by Oireachtas legal advisors to resist from commenting on the judgment publicly. John McGuinness, Fianna Fáil TD and chair of the Oireachtas Finance Committee, who was PAC chair at the time of Ms Kerins’ appearance, said he would refrain from comment in order to consider the judgment when contacted by the Irish Examiner.
Speaking privately, many expressed grave concern at the provisional verdict.
Members of the commission said the verdict if carried through by the Supreme Court would be “very serious,” but that they would await direction from their legal team before making a substantive comment.
“It is a dangerous development,” said one senior TD and former minister. “The principle of absolute privilege has been around since time immemorial.
“But this is scary, because rightly or wrongly it opens the door to us being legally challenged. That will have a chilling effect,” the TD said.