High Court reserves judgment on Angela Kerins case legal costs

Former Rehab chief went before PAC to assist in administration of the State, court told

  Former Rehab chief executive Angela Kerins: Legal costs arising from her failed action  for damages over the Dáil Public Accounts Committee’s conduct could be as high as €700,000.     Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Former Rehab chief executive Angela Kerins: Legal costs arising from her failed action for damages over the Dáil Public Accounts Committee’s conduct could be as high as €700,000. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

The High Court has reserved its decision on whether former Rehab chief executive Angela Kerins must pay the substantial legal costs of her failed action for damages over the Dáil Public Accounts Committee’s conduct of hearings on public money paid to the Rehab group.

The costs of the case, which ran for 10 days with another four days spent on pre-trial matters, are estimated at upwards of €700,000.

Last month the three judge court ruled that, because the Constitution confers absolute privilege on “utterances” in the Oireachtas and the PAC was making no “determination” in relation to Ms Kerins, the courts cannot intervene in relation to how the two hearings in 2014 were conducted.

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”, it held.

The judgment has implications for other Oireachtas committees and a separate case taken by businessman Denis O’Brien over statements by two TDs in the Dáil concerning his banking affairs. Judgment on Mr O’Brien’s case is expected next month.

When the case returned before the president of the High Court Mr Justice Peter Kelly, Ms Justice Isobel Kennedy and Mr Justice Seamus Noonan on Tuesday to deal with costs, the PAC and State sought their costs against Ms Kerins on the basis the court had rejected her claims.

John Rogers SC, for Ms Kerins, asked the court not to apply the normal rule that costs go to the winning party and instead award Ms Kerins her costs against the PAC. Ms Kerins was a citizen going before PAC to assist in the administration of the State and the court found both PAC hearings damaged her reputation personally and professionally, he said. She was entitled to go to court looking for damages and other reliefs to vindicate her constitutional right to her good name.

Her case involved issues of “crucial constitutional importance” related to the right of a citizen appearing before an Oireachtas committee to vindicate their good name where it is damaged before such a committee acting outside its jurisdiction.

‘Seminal’ statements

It was also “unprecedented” as no other case addressed whether or not an Oireachtas committee whose members had acted outside jurisdiction were amenable to the courts and the judgment contained “seminal” statements concerning rights of citizens appearing before Oireachtas committees.

Ms Kerins wanted her costs against the PAC and for the court to make no order in relation to the costs of the State, he added.

Brian Kennedy SC for the Public Accounts Committee, argued there were no special circumstances to justify departing from the normal costs rule and the interests of justice did not require such a departure.

The court was not dealing with uncharted constitutional terrain here and the “core” of the case was a claim for damages for Ms Kerins’ benefit.

His side were “unequivocally successful” in arguing the court had no jurisdiction to grant the orders sought by Ms Kerins and the fact she voluntarily came before the PAC put her in a different position from others subject to other court decisions.

Given the finding that the courts cannot analyse what is said in parliament, it would not be appropriate to “penalise” the PAC in some way over the conduct of the hearings, counsel added.

Conor Power SC, for the State parties, also sought costs against Ms Kerins.

Mr Justice Kelly said the court would reserve its decision.

In her action, Ms Kerins claimed two PAC hearings on February 27th and April 10th 2014, when she was questioned about her €240,000 annual salary and other matters, amounted to a “witch-hunt” against her. The PAC argued it is entitled to scrutinise how public funds are spent when some €80 million public funds are paid annually to Rehab companies.