Supreme Court to hear final arguments in Angela Kerins case

Court will decide if PAC acted unlawfully in its treatment of former Rehab CEO

Angela Kerins arrives at the PAC meeting in 2014. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Angela Kerins arrives at the PAC meeting in 2014. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

A seven judge Supreme Court will hear final submissions on Monday before deciding whether or not the Dáil Public Accounts Committee acted unlawfully “as a whole” in its treatment of former Rehab CEO Angela Kerins.

The case raises important issues concerning the constitutional separation of powers and the courts’ ability to intervene in proceedings of Oireachtas Committees.

The Supreme Court had last February found in favour of Ms Kerins on key issues in her appeal over the High Court’s rejection of her case concerning two PAC hearings in 2014.

The court said it needed to hear further submissions on specified matters before finalising its decision on the appeal.

It will hear those on Monday after which it is expected to reserve judgment.

Among its core findings in its February 27th judgment was that there is no “absolute barrier” to the bringing of proceedings concerning the actions of a committee of the Houses of the Oireachtas.

It said there had to be a further hearing to decide whether the actions of the PAC “as a whole” amounted to an unlawful and unfair process.

That assessment would place “particular emphasis” on the importance of the role of the then PAC chairman - Independent TD John McGuinness - whose function is to ensure the body acts properly in accordance with any relevant law, rules of regulation, it said.

If those matters are resolved in favour of Ms Kerins, the court has said it will declare the PAC acted unlawfully in how it questioned her by reason of acting significantly outside its terms of reference and in a manner significantly different from the basis of its invitation to appear before it.

The court also said the appropriate defendant in the case is the Dáil, rather than the individual members of the PAC.

Issues related to whether or not Ms Kerins is entitled to any damages would require another hearing and that issue is not before the court as of now, it said.

Any such entitlement could not be presumed from its findings and would involve considering significant legal issues, including the importance of ensuring freedom of speech in the Oireachtas, it stressed.

Ms Kerins’ case concerns her treatment at two PAC hearings in 2014 into payments to Rehab, where questions were asked about her €240,000 annual salary and other matters.

She voluntarily attended the first hearing in February 2014 and said her treatment was such she was too unwell to attend the second in April 2014. The conduct of the hearings amounted to a “witch-hunt”, she claimed.

The PAC denied her claims and argued it was entitled to scrutinise how public monies are spent when about €83 million of public monies were paid annually to Rehab companies.

In 2017, a three judge High Court found that what was put to and said about Ms Kerins at the PAC meetings was damaging to her personally and professionally. However, it ruled the courts could not intervene in how the hearings were conducted.

The Supreme Court, in its February judgment, said a combination of factors lead to it being appropriate for a court to intervene.

Those factors were (1) the cumulative effect of the PAC acting “very significantly” outside its terms of reference; (2) acting in a manner that the Oireachtas Committee on Procedure and Privileges (CPP) had found was outside its powers; (3) the possibility (if that could be established) the PAC engaged in an unlawful and unfair process by acting as a whole in a manner which lead to a citizen accepting an invitation on one basis, but being treated differently on attendance; (4) and the fact the Oireachtas had not acted to deal with these matters.

It said, although Rehab receives public funds, it was at all times an independent entity operating in the private sector, not audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General and Ms Kerins was a private sector employee.