Parliamentary privilege: rights and wrongs

Witnesses may not be willing to appear at future Public Accounts Committee hearings

 

The recent High Court decision to award Angela Kerins two thirds of her legal costs despite losing her case against the Public Accounts Committee, has put the spotlight back on the use and abuse of parliamentary privilege. Back in January a three-judge High Court ruled that the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech in parliament meant that Ms Kerins was not entitled to damages because of the way she was treated by the PAC. However, the court did find that much of what was said about her and put to her in 2014 was damaging to her reputation.

The court has now decided that Ms Kerins should have two-thirds of her legal costs paid for by the State. The cost of the trial is estimated at €700,000 so the PAC will have to pick up the tab for the State’s legal bill, as well as two-thirds of Ms Kerins’s. One of the reasons the court gave for its decision on costs, which are normally borne by the losing side, was that Ms Kerins had raised issues of public importance regarding the legal safeguards available to witnesses who appear before the PAC in a voluntary capacity.

Witnesses at controversial hearings regularly find themselves being used as punch bags by TDs and senators looking for media headlines

The High Court’s decision to land the bulk of the bill with the PAC should give the committee serious food for thought about how witnesses are treated at future hearings. The court’s emphasis on the fact that Ms Kerins was a voluntary witness and need not have appeared before the committee in the first place is also pertinent. The willingness of witnesses to appear before the committee in the future must now be in serious doubt.

Witnesses at controversial hearings regularly find themselves being used as punch bags by TDs and senators looking for media headlines rather than hard facts. There has also been a string of questionable pejorative statements about private individuals uttered by TDs under the cover of Dáil privilege. This can be justified in special circumstances but not as a regular feature of debate.

Until the Oireachtas comes up with a serious set of sanctions for TDs who abuse their privileged position, it can expect that witnesses will in future be slow to subject themselves to giving evidence about issues of national importance.

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