Former Rehab CEO Angela Kerins could face a substantial legal costs bill after losing her High Court case seeking damages against the Dáil Public Accounts Committee over its conduct of hearings concerning public monies paid to the Rehab group.
The three-judge court yesterday ruled that because the Constitution confers absolute privilege on “utterances” in the Oireachtas and before its committees, and the PAC was making no “determination” in relation to Ms Kerins, the courts cannot intervene in relation to the conduct of the hearings.
“For upwards of four centuries, it has been recognised in common law jurisdictions throughout the world that the courts exercise no function in relation to speech in parliament.
“This is fundamental to the separation of powers and a cornerstone of constitutional democracy.
“The Constitution guarantees freedom of speech in parliament, not to protect parliamentarians, but the democratic process itself.”
If members of the Oireachtas were constrained in their speech as Ms Kerins alleged, “the effective functioning of parliament would be impaired in a manner expressly forbidden in absolute terms by the Constitution”.
The European Court of Human Rights had also found a rule of absolute parliamentary immunity does not exceed the margin of appreciation allowed to member states in limiting an individual’s right of access to a court, it noted.
The judgment has implications for Oireachtas committees and may also affect the separate case by businessman Denis O’Brien over statements by two TDs in the Dáil about his banking affairs, on which judgment has been reserved pending the Kerins decision.
Ms Kerins, who was not in court, could face a six-figure bill if the costs of the 10-day hearing are awarded against her. Costs and other issues will be addressed on February 21.
She claimed two PAC hearings on February 27 and April 10, 2014, when she was questioned about her €240,000 annual salary and other matters, amounted to a “witch hunt” against her. She alleged she was so overwhelmed after the first hearing she attempted to take her own life some two weeks later and was too unwell to attend the second hearing. She sought damages on grounds including personal injury, loss of job and loss of reputation.
The PAC argued it is entitled to scrutinise how public funds are spent when some €80m public monies are paid annually to Rehab companies.
While Mr Justice Peter Kelly, Mr Justice Seamus Noonan and Ms Justice Isobel Kennedy were asked to address a range of jurisdictional issues, they held the issue of jurisdiction did not properly arise here.
Jurisdiction did not arise for reasons including Ms Kerins attended voluntarily before PAC on February 27 and because the Dáil Committee on Procedure and Privileges later ruled PAC could not compel her further attendance and had no power to examine payments “by” Rehab.
Ms Kerins, whose annual salary was €240,000, plus an €18,000 car and pension €14,400 payment, was accused of being “overpaid”, on “a different planet” and of adopting double standards concerning her own pay and pay of other Rehab staff.
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