The Health Service Executive (HSE) stood accused tonight of trying to gag the country’s top rights watchdog, Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly.
In a report for the Oireachtas, Ms O’Reilly claimed HSE management lacked ordinary common sense and described their dealings with her office as perverse.
The watchdog said the HSE peddled inaccuracies, misrepresentations and irrelevancies to embroil both agencies in long-running, complex and ultimately futile legal battles.
“It was a frustrating, wasteful, dispiriting and, ultimately, useless process,” the Ombudsman wrote.
The damning analysis of one of the state’s most heavily criticised agencies was sparked in 2008 when Ms O’Reilly tried to access HSE files to investigate a complaint about guardian fees and found her office tied up in legal wrangles for seven months.
She was initially denied access by health chiefs who claimed the files were classified because they involved minors with decisions taken “in camera” in court.
Ms O’Reilly said: “The HSE zoned in on an issue which was quite irrelevant to my investigation and then used that irrelevant issue as the basis, not just for rejecting my report, but for involving me in the futile and expensive proceedings described above.”
Her report, Gagging The Ombudsman?, suggested the HSE would have better things to do with its time and resources than employ outside solicitors to liaise with her office.
“It is hard to credit that the HSE would choose to engage my office on a wasteful and ultimately futile escapade, as described above, when it has so many pressing and very real problems with which it should be engaged,” she said.
“I am not at all persuaded that its actions arose from a genuine belief in the need to show respect for, and to protect the integrity of the courts.”
Failed court actions brought by the HSE cost the taxpayer about €150,000.
The Ombudsman, however, warned about the damage done after her office was forced to sacrifice considerable manpower to deal with the HSE on this issue.
She said court actions forced her to withhold a report on dealings with the HSE prepared for the Oireachtas last year.
“Looking back with the benefit of one year’s distance, it is my conclusion not only that these events proved utterly futile, in the sense of having no tangible outcome, but regrettably that it was never the intention of the HSE that they would serve any useful purpose,” she said.
“The HSE contends that its actions were at all times governed by legal advice and were taken out of respect for the law and the courts.
“Unfortunately, I find it very difficult to accept that this was in fact the case.”
The Ombudsman wrote in her report that the HSE was at best guided by an ill-judged reliance on legal advice which led to a failure in balanced decision making.
Or, she said, at worst it was calculated and measured to prevent her publishing a report critical of the HSE.