Supreme Court: No ‘absolute barrier’ to bringing proceedings concerning the actions of Oireachtas committee

Supreme Court
Supreme Court

The separation of powers principle does not preclude the courts from considering a case brought by a private individual against members of the Public Accounts Committee, the Supreme Court has ruled.

The Court held that the PAC acted “significantly outside its terms of reference” in its treatment of applicant Angela Kerins, who tried to take her own life after she attended the PAC voluntarily in February 2014.

Concluding 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, the Chief Justice, Mr Justice Frank Clarke, directed the parties to file submissions on, inter alia, whether it was appropriate to characterise the actions of the PAC as a whole as having been in significant breach of the basis of the invitation to Ms Kerins.

High Court

In the High Court, Mr Justice Peter Kelly found that parliamentary freedom of speech prohibited the Court from adjudicating the alleged damaging statements made by the PAC in the process of investigating Ms Kerins’ role in the Rehab Group, and that it would be a breach of the separation of powers for it to embark on a consideration of Ms Kerins’ complaints.

Describing the separation of powers as “a cornerstone of constitutional democracy”, Mr Justice Kelly stated that the Constitution guaranteed freedom of speech in parliament, not to protect parliamentarians, but the democratic process itself.

Supreme Court

Ms Kerins appealed to the Supreme Court against the decision of the High Court. Delivering the judgment of the Supreme Court, Mr Justice Clarke made the following conclusions:

  • A committee of a House or the Houses of the Oireachtas has the same constitutional privileges and immunities as the Oireachtas where a function of the Oireachtas has been delegated to it;
  • A court can consider evidence of what was said at a meeting of such a committee, in order to determine the actions of the committee, and that this does not infringe the prohibition of making members of the House amenable to a court in respect of respected utterances, and does not infringe any privilege conferred;
  • While noting the purpose of the privileges and immunities under Article 15 of the Constitution, and the public interest in protecting freedom of speech within the Houses of the Oireachtas – there is not an absolute barrier to bringing proceedings concerning the actions of a committee of the Houses of the Oireachtas.
  • The Dáil can be the appropriate defendant in proceedings concerning the conduct of a committee appointed by the Dáil to carry out part of its constitutional function. For constitutional reasons, it was not appropriate to name the individual members of a committee as defendants.
  • The Houses have the primary role of providing a remedy where a citizen is affected by unlawful action in the course of conducting the business of the Oireachtas. Intervention by a court can only arise where there has been a significant and un-remedied unlawful action on the part of a committee (requiring consideration of the actions of a committee as a whole, rather than individual utterances of members of the committee)
  • In the circumstances of this case, it was not a breach of the separation of powers for the Court to declare the actions of the PAC unlawful, in the light of the fact that:
    1. The PAC was acting outside its terms of reference, and that a relevant committee of the Houses of the Oireachtas – the Committee on Procedure and Privileges – had come to that view;
    2. The court assessed that the PAC was acting significantly outside its remit,
    3. It was possibly appropriate to find on the evidence that the PAC had invited Ms Kerins to attend before it on one basis – but had proceeded, when she attended, to deal with her on an entirely different basis.

Matters requiring further consideration

The Court indicated that it would require further submissions from the parties on the question of whether it would be appropriate to characterise the actions of the PAC as a whole as having involved a substantial breach of its obligation to treat Ms Kerins fairly in the sense of keeping broadly within the bounds of the terms of the invitation which it issued to her. In that context, the Court indicated that a citizen who accepts an invitation to attend before a committee of the Houses of the Oireachtas is entitled to expect that the committee concerned will act within the boundaries of the invitation.

Because the evidence concerning the proceedings before the PAC relevant to Ms Kerins’ case involved transcripts or recordings together with documents, Mr Justice Clarke said the Supreme Court was in as good a position to form a judgment on the facts as the High Court would have been had it considered that it was legally entitled to.

Mr Justice Clarke said there remained two matters for further consideration:

  1. The issue of the appropriate defendants in the context of the allegations against the PAC
  2. The factual issue concerning the proper characterisation of the actions of the PAC as a whole.

Directing the parties to file further submissions, and listing the matter for mention on 3 April 2019, Mr Justice Clarke said the Court would consider those matters in a further hearing with a view to reaching a final conclusion.

  • by Seosamh Gráinséir for Irish Legal News

© Irish Legal News Ltd 2020

Other judgments by Mr Justice Frank Clarke