Ruling threatens a ‘chilling effect’ on Dáil

Ruling threatens a ‘chilling effect’ on Dáil

Catherine Shanahan and Daniel McConnell

A working group is to probe the fallout of recent Supreme Court judgments following a ruling that the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) acted unlawfully in its treatment of the former head of the Rehab Group. Some Oireachtas members have warned the ruling will have “a chilling effect” on the work of Dáil committees.

The ruling opens the way for former Rehab chief executive Angela Kerins to return to the High Court and pursue further legal action. The taxpayer will pick up the bill for the costs of a previous unsuccessful High Court action taken by Ms Kerins as well as her successful Supreme Court appeal. Whether she is entitled to damages is a decision for the High Court

In its ruling, the court said by conducting a public hearing in a manner significantly outside of its terms of reference and which also departed significantly from the terms of the invitation issued to Ms Kerins, the PAC had acted unlawfully. While committee chairs were not commenting publicly, several voiced strong concerns about the potential “chilling effect” it could have.

“Of course it will have a chilling effect on us. The powers that be in here are only itching to nobble us. It is a highly significant judgment,” one committee chair told the Irish Examiner. Another chairman said the judgment could see lawyers being forced to sit in meetings which would be “a far from ideal scenario”.

“We often delve into matters about money, accountability and performance of duties. If we had to run everything we do past a lawyer, we would get nothing done,” the chairman said.

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald said the working group “must address the inevitable chilling effect of the judgment on how the committee system conducts its normal business”.

“TDs and senators cannot be curtailed in their duty to protect the public interest, nor must the platforms of accountability in the Oireachtas be stifled in their ability to hold bodies and agencies in receipt of substantial public monies to account,” Ms McDonald said.

However Chief Justice Frank Clarke, who delivered yesterday’s ruling, said it was “wholly in the control of the Oireachtas” to specify in its rules and orders, the way in which committees conduct their business.

He said the issue “of an appropriate mechanism to provide a remedy in the event of a committee acting inappropriately is a matter which the Oireachtas itself can put in place”.

Former attorney general Michael McDowell also played down the potential of the ruling to stymie the work of committees. He said there should be “no problem as long as people stick within the remit they are given”.

Speaking on RTÉ radio Senator McDowell said it was “deeply unfair” to invite people before a committee on one basis “and then ambush them”. He said committee members had to remember they were not “grand inquisitors” “and they can’t just abuse people’s rights and take them by surprise”.

The decision to set up a working group to look at the implications of Supreme Court judgments was taken by the Dáil Committee on Procedure, which said it would “not be commenting further until it has considered that judgment in full”.

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