Supreme Court: Public Accounts Committee acted unlawfully in Kerins hearing
A woman has been granted a declaration that the Public Accounts Committee acted unlawfully in conducting a public hearing in a manner significantly outside its terms of reference, which also departed significantly from the terms of her invitation to attend the hearing.
Delivering the Supreme Court’s judgment, the Chief Justice, Mr Justice Frank Clarke, also made an order substituting the Dáil for the members of the committee who were named as defendants in the proceedings.
In February 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that the separation of powers principle did not preclude the courts from considering a case brought by a private individual against members of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
In the principal judgment of the Court, it was held that the PAC acted “significantly outside its terms of reference” in its treatment of Angela Kerins, who tried to take her own life after she attended the PAC voluntarily in February 2014.
The Supreme Court directed that a further hearing was necessary to determine two particular issues before the Court could consider making make a declaration that the PAC acted unlawfully. As such, Mr Justice Clarke outlined the remaining matters for further consideration:
- The issue of the appropriate defendants in the context of the allegations against the PAC;
- The factual issue concerning the proper characterisation of the actions of the PAC as a whole.
The appropriate defendants
Considering whether it would be appropriate to join the Dáil as a respondent in the proceedings in substitution for the individual members of the PAC and the Clerk of the Dáil, Mr Justice Clarke said that it was unusual for this to occur after a substantive judgment had been given, but that it was clear that the relevant interests of the Dáil were fully represented at all stages of the process – so that it was simply a technical question of specifying the precise identity of the correct defendant rather than seeking to join a new party with a different interest which had not been fully protected.
On that basis, he said the Court would make an order substituting the Dáil for the named defendants, with the exception of Ireland and the Attorney General.
Before moving on to consider the second question, Mr Justice Clarke added that the fact that a House or the Houses of the Oireachtas can be joined as a defendant in cases like the present, this did not alter the justiciability of any particular claim. In this regard he emphasised the limitations on the jurisdiction of the Court under the Constitution analysed in the principal judgment and in the O’Brien case.
Actions of the Public Accounts Committee
Mr Justice Clarke said the Court was of the view that it was appropriate to characterise the actions of the PAC as being such that Ms Kerins was invited to attend before the committee on one basis, but the committee acted in a significantly different matter once she attended.
In reaching this conclusion, the Court considered the terms set out in a detailed letter of invitation, terms which were confined to the outturn and outcome of the payments made to Rehab under the three schemes identified in the correspondence. What actually transpired at the hearing was significant questioning on areas well outside the terms of the invitation.
Mr Justice Clarke said that the PAC “condoned the significant departure by at least three deputies from the terms of the invitation issued to Ms Kerins, extended to include reference to her salary”. On that basis, he said it was appropriate to make a declaration that the committee acted unlawfully.
In the circumstances, Mr Justice Clarke said the Court would grant a declaration in the following terms:
A declaration that, by conducting a public hearing in a manner which was significantly outside of its terms of reference and which also departed significantly from the terms of an invitation by virtue of which a citizen was requested to attend, the Public Accounts Committee of Dáil Éireann acted unlawfully.
Whether Ms Kerins should be entitled to damages will be decided at a further hearing in the High Court.
- by Seosamh Gráinséir for Irish Legal News
© Irish Legal News Ltd 2019