Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A case of privilege?

Here's an interesting case that I came across yesterday.

Three former MPs and a peer were accused of making false expenses in the scandal that rocked parliament last year. In their defence they claimed that parliamentary privilege protected them from prosecution and that their fate "should lie within the hands of parliament".

The judges were told that the challenge was not an attempt to "take them above the law", but to ensure they were adjudicated by the "correct law and the correct body". It was said by the defendants that submitting an expenses form was part of the proceedings of parliament, and therefore protected by parliamentary privilege. Interestingly, they based their claim in part on Art 9 of the Bill of Rights 1688 which declared that “the Freedome of Speech and Debates or Proceedings in Parlyament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any Court or Place out of Parlyament”.

The defendants claimed that parliamentary privilege operated so that the courts had no jurisdiction over any words spoken in Parliament by a member, and by way of the Bill of Rights 1688 art.9 it provided that proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place outside Parliament. They submitted that the claims for expenses constituted proceedings in Parliament pursuant to art.9 and that the criminal charges constituted an infringement of art.9. They also argued that privilege should attach to any dealing that a member might have with the House, or that the administration and decision-making process of the expenses reimbursement system itself should be subject to parliamentary privilege.

What do you think? False expense claims privileged or not?

The court of appeal ruled that parliamentary privilege did not protect them from prosecution. The decision upheld an earlier ruling by a lower court that they were not protected by parliamentary privilege. The four men, who all deny theft by false accounting, can still take their cases to the supreme court for a further challenge. The charges carry a maximum sentence of seven years' imprisonment.

Lord Judge, the lord chief justice, and two other judges rejected the argument put forward by the four and Judge said: "In our judgment no question of privilege arises and the ordinary process of the criminal justice system should take its normal course, unaffected by any groundless anxiety that they might constitute an infringement of the principles of parliamentary privilege." He went on to state: "It can confidently be stated that parliamentary privilege or immunity from criminal prosecution has never, ever attached to ordinary criminal activities by members of parliament." With the exception of the exercise of freedom of speech, he said, "it is difficult to envisage circumstances in which the performance of the core responsibilities of a member of parliament might require or permit him or her to commit crime".

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