FORMER CHIEF EXECUTIVE of Rehab Angela Kerins has lost her case for damages against the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee at the High Court.
In delivering his judgement this morning, President of the High Court Justice Peter Kelly said that “the issue of jurisdiction is not one that properly arises in this case”.
He said that it was clear that the utterances of members of the Oireachtas during Kerins’ appearance in front of PAC in February 2014 were “clearly opinion devoid of legal force”, and that it was beyond the court’s jurisdiction under Article 15.13 of the Constitution to award damages arising from those utterances.
“The essence of the applicant’s case is a claim for damages arising from those utterances which seeks to make the Oireachtas respondents amenable to the jurisdiction of the court,” he said.
That cannot be done.
Justice Kelly said it would be wrong to take the court’s decision as “a denial of the constitutional rights of ” Kerins.
He cited legal precedent, specifically the case of Cane v Dublin Corporation (1927):
“It would be strange indeed if a court of law were to have the power to pass under review the evidence and the proceedings before a parliamentary committee,” being the passage cited from that case.
“In this case the custodian of those rights is not the court but the Oireachtas itself,” Justice Kelly said.
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 is a cornerstone of constitutional democracy.
Justice Kelly added that the privilege conferred by Article 15.13 is “not merely one that provides a litigation defence… rather utterances in parliament are in an area of non-justiciability ordained by the Constitution”.
“For all of these reasons therefore, the court is of the opinion that this claim must fail,” he concluded.
Angela Kerins was not present in court for the judgement.
The court set a date of 21 February, three weeks from today, for both sides to represent their case as regards legal costs.
Reacting to the judgement, Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald said it was “a significant decision as it clarifies the right of members of the Oireachtas to act in the public interest and to do the job that we are elected to do”.
McDonald had been one of the most noteworthy of those who questioned Kerins during her seven-hour appearance in front of the PAC and was named, as were all then members of the committee, in the legal action.
“The PAC had a right and a responsibility to examine how €83m in annual state funding, given to Rehab companies, was put to use,” McDonald said.
No organisation who receives finance from the public purse can be beyond accountability.
Kerins had been sought damages from the PAC for distress, public humiliation, and the loss of her career regarding her appearance before the committee in February 2014 while she was still working at Rehab.
The court previously heard that Kerins had made an attempt on her own life following her seven-hour session in front of the PAC on 27 February 2014, and subsequently resigned as CEO of Rehab on 2 April 2014.
The full 57-page judgement can be read here