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Parliamentary privilege

Previous: The prerogative

Parliamentary privileges are the rights and immunities which members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords possess to enable them to carry out their parliamentary functions effectively. Parliamentary privileges allow parliament to be protected from external interference, instead relying on self-regulation to restrain members from abusing their privileged positions.

The privileges

Freedom from civil arrest

Members of the two houses are protected from all civil proceedings 40 days outside of a parliamentary session. They are not, however, protected from criminal prosecution and members are not protected against bankruptcy or jury service. Any arrest for the words spoken by a member is exempted, every if criminal.

Freedom of speech

According to the Bill of Rights 1689, “Speech…in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place outside of Parliament.” This means that MPs can speak freely in-house knowing that they are protected against claims for defamation. If Hansard is used in statutory interpretation, freedom of speech is not questioned, just as speech is not questioned with regards to the Official Secrets Act. Speech in relation to judicial proceedings is also not actionable.

However, what is said by a member in Parliament may be used against that member in a claim for defamation made outside of their immunity and such a privilege has the opportunity to be waived by the court according to Hamilton v Al Fayed [2001].

Qualified privilege

The house itself may not create new privileges, though the courts may adjudicate upon the privileges which already exist. It does perhaps seem a little odd that the legislature cannot legislate on this matter for themselves though. Parliamentary discussions may be published unless the session was private.

Contempt of privilege

Members can breach their privileges through disorderly conduct; refusal to give evidence without explanation; interference with others’ evidence giving; bribery, corruption or threats. According to the parliamentary Standards Act 2009 (Amended 2010), members must not act under financial incentivisation, nor may they abuse the expenses system.

Next: Parliamentary sovereignty

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