Contempt of Parliament
The examples and perspective in this article deal primarily with the English-speaking world and do not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (January 2015) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
The examples and perspective in this article deal primarily with the Commonwealth realms and do not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (June 2018) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
In some countries, contempt of Parliament is the offence of obstructing the legislature in the carrying out of its functions, or of hindering any legislator in the performance of his or her duties. The offence is known by various other names in jurisdictions in which the legislature is not called "parliament". Actions that may constitute contempt of parliament include:
- deliberately misleading a house of the legislature, or a legislative committee;
- refusing to testify before, or to produce documents to, a house or committee; and
- attempting to influence a member of the legislature by bribery or threats.
In some jurisdictions, a house of the legislature may declare any act to constitute contempt, and this is not subject to judicial review. In others, contempt of parliament is defined by statute; while the legislature makes the initial decision of whether to punish for contempt, the person or organisation in contempt may appeal to the courts. Some jurisdictions consider contempt of parliament to be a criminal offence.
In the Commonwealth of Australia, the Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987 defines contempt of Parliament as:
- Conduct (including the use of words)... [which] amounts, or is intended or likely to amount, to an improper interference with the free exercise by a House or committee of its authority or functions, or with the free performance by a member of the member's duties as a member.
Contempt decisions by the House of Representatives or the Senate are subject to review by federal courts. This follows after the Browne–Fitzpatrick privilege case which centred around Morgan, Fitzpatrick and Frank Browne being denied legal representation and subsequently being convicted and serving 90 days each in jail for publishing an allegedly defamatory article against a member of Parliament.
Punishments are limited under the Act to (for individuals) a fine of $5,000 and/or six months' imprisonment, or (for corporations) a fine of $25,000.
In the Senate, allegations of contempt are heard by the Privileges Committee, which decides whether or not contempt was committed, and if so, what punishment is to be imposed. In practice, there have been very few times when a hearing determined that anyone was in contempt, and on no occasions has anyone been punished beyond a warning, with an apology and/or other appropriate remedial action.
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The power to find a person in contempt of Parliament stemmed from Section 18 of the Constitution Act, 1867 in which "The privileges, immunities, and powers to be held, enjoyed... shall not confer any privileges, immunities, or powers exceeding those at the passing of such Act held, enjoyed, and exercised by the Commons House of Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and by the members thereof."
Regarding the above-mentioned "privileges," there is an important difference between the "individual parliamentary privileges" and "collective parliamentary privileges." This difference is also important in any case of "breach of privilege" as it applies to parliamentary privilege in Canada.
Contempt citation cases for individuals
The April 10, 2008 case involved Royal Canadian Mounted Police deputy commissioner Barbara George who was cited for contempt for deliberately misleading a parliamentary committee over an income trust scandal. She was ultimately found in contempt but was not punished further than the motion itself.
The March 2011 contempt citation case involved Conservative MP Bev Oda. While she was found to be prima facie in contempt by the Speaker, Oda was not formally held in contempt because Parliament was dissolved before a vote could be held on the matter.
Contempt citation cases for governments
On March 9, 2011, Speaker of the House of Commons of Canada Peter Milliken made two Contempt of Parliament rulings: The first found that a Conservative Party cabinet minister, Bev Oda, could possibly be in contempt of Parliament. The second ruling found the Cabinet could possibly be in contempt of Parliament for not meeting Opposition members' requests for details of proposed bills and their cost estimates, an issue which had "been dragging on since the fall of 2010." Milliken ruled that both matters must go to their responsible parliamentary committees and that the committee was required to report its findings to the Speaker by March 21, 2011 – one day before the proposal of the budget.
Concerning the Speaker's first ruling, on March 18, 2011, Opposition members of the committee (who outnumbered the government members) said they still judged Oda to be in contempt of Parliament, despite her testimony that day, but the committee process never proceeded far enough to make a finding as to whether Oda was in contempt.
Concerning the Speaker's second ruling, on March 21, 2011, the committee tabled a report that found the Government of Canada in contempt of Parliament. As such, a motion of no confidence was introduced in the House. On March 25, 2011, Members of Parliament voted on this motion, declaring a lack of confidence by a vote of 156 to 145 and forcing an election. The contempt finding is unique in Canadian history. In a wider context, it is the first time that any government in the 54-member Commonwealth of Nations, either Commonwealth Realm or parliamentary republic, has been found in contempt of parliament.
Earlier that week, all three opposition parties had indicated that they would oppose the government's budget, with the NDP saying that the Conservatives' concessions did not go far enough, and the Bloc's earlier demands for $5 billion to their home province (including compensation for the 1998 ice storm and a new arena for the Quebec Nordiques) being rejected outright. Though the vote on the budget was never scheduled, a budget is a confidence matter in its own right, so Prime Minister Stephen Harper asked the Governor General to dissolve Parliament.
During the campaign the Conservatives portrayed the "Liberal motion of non-confidence over the contempt-of-Parliament finding" as mischief, instead of focusing on the economy and making constructive proposals for the budget. The Conservatives framed the election as a choice between a stable Conservative majority government or a Liberal coalition backed by the NDP and/or Bloc Québécois. The resulting election devastated two of the opposition parties who supported the contempt motion, with the Liberals losing more than half their seats to drop to third place in the Commons for the first time, while the Bloc Québécois was nearly wiped out, with both their leaders also personally losing their ridings. The Conservatives gained enough seats to form a majority government, while the New Democratic Party won a record number of seats to form the Official Opposition.
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Contempt of Parliament consists of interference with parliamentary privilege and of certain acts that obstruct the house and its members in their business.
Parliamentary privilege consists of freedom of speech on the floor of the House and in committee, freedom from arrest, regulating its membership and exclusive cognisance of internal affairs.
Privilege extends to the publication of papers and reports by order of the House, including the official record Hansard.
Freedom from arrest originally prevented the arrest (on criminal as well as civil grounds) of members, their goods and their staff. The freedom from arrest of servants and goods were removed in the 18th century as the privilege was open to abuse, as was immunity from arrest for criminal acts. MPs today are only protected from arrest on civil grounds, for contempt of court.
Regulation of composition extends to determining who is elected and whether they may take their seat. The result of elections is now de facto a matter for an Election Court composed of High Court judges, who issue a certificate to the Speaker in the case of elections where the result is disputed. The House also has exclusive right to determine whether members may take up their seat, including whether a member is eligible to take the relevant oath.
Exclusive cognisance of internal affairs extends to the right to determine the oaths to be taken by members and who may take them (Bradlaugh v Gossett), the right to determine who may use House of Commons facilities and the exclusion of the jurisdiction of the courts as to alcohol sale offences within the Palace of Westminster.
In the United Kingdom, it has been alleged that arresting a member of Parliament in the course of carrying out his duties may constitute contempt of Parliament, although immunity from criminal arrest was removed by the Parliamentary Privilege Acts of the 18th century.
It is further contempt to bribe or attempt to bribe any member (and for any member to accept or solicit a bribe), to disrupt the sittings of the House or a committee—wherever it is sitting, to refuse to appear before a committee to testify, to refuse to answer any question put by a committee, to lie to a committee or to refuse to swear an oath when testifying, or to otherwise obstruct the business of the House.
MPs accused of Contempt of Parliament may be suspended or expelled. They may also be committed to the clock tower of the Palace of Westminster, although this practice has not been used since Charles Bradlaugh was detained in 1880. Strangers (those who are not members of the House) may be committed to prison during the life of the Parliament. The House of Lords has the power to fine as well as to order imprisonment for a term of years.
- Contempt of Parliament, by Kieron Wood (Clarus Press, 2012)
- Constitution Acts, 1867
- Canwest News Service (April 10, 2008). "Examples of 'rare' contempt of Parliament cases". CanWest MediaWorks Publications Inc. Retrieved 21 March 2011.
- Laura Payton (March 9, 2011). "PM on rulings: 'win some, lose some'". CBC News. Retrieved 26 March 2011.
- RCMP deputy commissioner found in contempt of Parliament
- Mike De Souza (March 26, 2011). "Oda off the hook". Montreal Gazette. Retrieved 26 March 2011.
- "MPs' report finds government in contempt". CBC News. 21 March 2011. Retrieved 24 March 2011.
- Laura Payton (18 March 2011). "MPs to return Monday on contempt debate". CBC News. Retrieved 21 March 2011.
- "Question of Privilege Relating to the Failure of the Government To Fully Provide the Documents as Ordered by the House: Report of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs" (PDF). March 2011. Retrieved 2011-04-26.
- "Global News | Latest & Current News - Weather, Sports & Health News". Globaltvcalgary.com. Retrieved 2013-08-31.
- CBC News (25 March 2011). "MPs gather for historic vote". CBC. Retrieved 25 March 2011.
- Bruce Cheadle (Mar 25, 2011). "Harper government topples on contempt motion, triggering May election". The Canadian Press; CTV news. Retrieved 25 March 2011.
- Thomas Walkom (March 25, 2011). "Walkom: Yes, contempt of Parliament does matter". Toronto Star. Retrieved 25 March 2011.
- Wells, Paul (2011-05-05). "The untold story of the 2011 election: Chapter 2". Macleans.ca. Retrieved 2012-03-19.
- "Cap 382 s 17 Contempts (LEGISLATIVE COUNCIL (POWERS AND PRIVILEGES) ORDINANCE)". Legislation.gov.hk. 1997-06-30. Retrieved 2013-08-31.
- Watt, Nicholas; Sparrow, Andrew (28 November 2008). "Allegation made by Michael Howard, a lawyer and former Home Secretary". The Guardian. London.
- Peter Lyne (March 26, 1964). "Contempt Drama Grips Parliament". The Christian Science Monitor. p. 13.