The Supreme Court will hear a second appeal from former Rehab chief executive Angela Kerins in her long-running quest for damages over her 2014 appearance before a Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
Ms Kerins’s had appealed against the High Court’s dismissal of her pre-trial request for documents held by Dáil Éireann to aid her in her claim that her constitutional rights were breached.
Last July, Mr Justice Alexander Owens said it appeared Ms Kerins’s application was for discovery of documents that were “intimately connected” with protected speech.
Article 15.13 of the Constitution precluded him from entertaining her request, he said, as “the gravamen of her claim calls for judgment on speech and debate by members of Dáil Éireann”.
Her claim for damages for misfeasance in public office was “not maintainable” due to the constitutional protection placed on utterances in the Dáil, which extends to activities of committees within the Houses of the Oireachtas.
A three-judge Supreme Court panel said an important issue arises as to what, if any, disclosure of documents can be made in relation to PAC in respect of committee meetings in the performance of its functions in circumstances where the Supreme Court found the PAC acted unlawfully in its dealings with Ms Kerins.
In seeking to appeal, Ms Kerins submitted that the High Court’s conclusion that her claim was non-justiciable has resulted in her claim becoming precarious.
The respondent parties: Dáil Éireann, Ireland and the Attorney General, opposed the request for an appeal, submitting that Ms Kerins’s pursuit of damages for a breach of her constitutional rights is a matter of private interest to her.
They also argued that the High Court’s judgment does not have the far-reaching consequences Ms Kerins suggests it has. Interpreting a number of provisions of the Constitution will be central to the appeal, said the court.
The panel, comprising Ms Justice Elizabeth Dunne, Ms Justice Marie Baker and Mr Justice Brian Murray, noted it was usual for it to allow an appeal over a preliminary request for discovery of documents. However, this application transcends the issues that would normally arise in such an application, they said.
Ms Kerins’s claim for damages, initially brought against the State and members of the committee, alleges she was subjected to a “witch hunt” style of questioning when she appeared publicly before a Public Accounts Committee in February 2014 amid controversy about her €240,000 salary.
The impact on her was so great, she says, that she became unwell and attempted to take her own life. Her claims are denied and the committee argued it was entitled to ask questions concerning State funding to Rehab, a private charitable entity in receipt of extensive public funding.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2019 on the first module of her action, finding the committee acted unlawfully as a whole by straying significantly outside its terms of reference and the terms of an invitation to her.
The court’s declaration related to the committee’s actions, while it refrained from making any finding which trenched on protections in respect of the utterances of its members.
The next module of her case, to which this pre-trial discovery request applies, concerns questions relating to any entitlement she has to damages.