Parliamentary privilege doesn’t protect against criminal trial

Three former Labour MPs and a Conservative peer lost their appeals this morning, over last month’s ruling that they could not avoid trial for alleged expenses fraud by claiming Parliamentary privilege.

From the BBC:

Elliott Morley, David Chaytor, Jim Devine and Lord Hanningfield had argued at the Court of Appeal that only Parliament could hear their case.

The four all deny charges of false accounting over their expenses.

The charges carry a maximum sentence of seven years’ imprisonment.

The men had appealed against a ruling in June by Mr Justice Saunders sitting at Southwark Crown Court in central London.

The judge had rejected arguments that they were protected by parliamentary privilege and should be dealt with by Parliament alone.

Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge said,

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. It is difficult to envisage circumstances in which the performance of the core responsibilities of a MP might require or permit him or her to commit crime.

The stark reality is that the defendants are alleged to have taken advantage of the allowances scheme designed to enable them to perform their important public duties as MPs to commit crimes of dishonesty to which parliamentary immunity or privilege does not, has never, and, we believe, never would attach.

If the allegations are proved, and we emphasise, if they are proved, then those against whom they are proved will have committed ordinary crimes.

Even stretching language to its limits, we are unable to envisage how dishonest claims by MPs for their expenses or allowances begin to involve the legislative or core functions of the relevant House…In our judgment, no question of privilege arises, and the ordinary process of the criminal justice system should take its normal course.

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4 Comments

  • Andrew Suffield 30th Jul '10 - 8:46pm

    It is difficult to envisage circumstances in which the performance of the core responsibilities of a MP might require or permit him or her to commit crime.

    I can think of one. According to section 1 of the Terrorism Act, any act designed to influence the government for a political cause, and which disrupts an electronic system, is terrorism and is proscribed.

    The Digital Economy Act was designed to influence the government for a political cause, and to disrupt an electronic system (file sharing via the internet). Surely that qualifies.

    An example of how some sloppy lawmaking results in overly broad laws that criminalise unexpected things; decades of this kind of carelessness have ended up criminalising large numbers of everyday activities – so it’s not too far fetched to think that an MP might be required to break the law in order to get their job done. Most people do.

  • Why they ever though this line of defence was a good one is beyond me – the courts were never going to interpret the law so that obvious crooks were let off scott free.

    Even though this case sounds quite clear cut, the judges would hunted down a technicality here, or a misplaced coma there to ensure that this piece of case law didn’t end up putting MPs above the law.

  • I believe there may be more in the pipeline relating to more recent claims by coilition MP’s

  • Jonathan Davies 4th Aug '10 - 11:15pm

    Anoraks can read the full judgment at http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Crim/2010/1910.html

    It is very unusual for a judgment to be delivered jointly by the Lord Chief Justice, the Master of the Rolls and the President of the Queen’s Bench Division – the three most senior judges who only sit together for what are perceived to be cases of exceptional public importance.

    The judgment is an interesting essay on the history of Parliamentary privilege dating back to 1629. “The privileges of Parliament are the privileges of the nation, and the bedrock of our constitutional democracy.”

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