Friday, 12 March 2010

Does the Bill of Rights 1689 offer a defence to MPs?

Three members of the House of Commons and one peer attended City of Westminster Magistrates' Court on Thursday 11th March 2010 - see The Times 12th March.  They face various charges under the Theft Act 1968 s.17 (False Accounting).  In court they told District Judge (Magistrates' Courts) Timothy Workman that they should not be tried in the criminal courts because Article 9 of the Bill of Rights 1689 protected them:

"That the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament"

The charges obviously relate to something done in Parliament since the expenses claims in question were submitted to the parliamentary authorities.  However, it remains to be seen just how it will be argued that submitting an expenses claim related to either (a) freedom of speech or (b) freedom of debate or (c) just how it was a "proceeding in parliament".  The purpose of the Bill of Rights is clear enough.  It is to enable members to say and do what they consider to be right without fear of action being taken against them, provided that it is said or done as part of the processes of parliament such as the making of legislation; raising matters of public concern or scrutiny of executive conduct.

At the time when the men were charged, the D.P.P. stated - "Lawyers representing those who have been charged have raised with us the question of Parliamentary privilege. We have considered that question and concluded that the applicability and extent of any Parliamentary privilege claimed should be tested in court."

The men will appear in the Crown Court at Southwark on 30th March.

Whatever the merits of the case, the men are entitled to a fair trial.  That is the right of any person appearing before the English courts charged with an offence.  This headline is surely unacceptable.  It appears that there is to be no prosecution in the case of Lady Uddin and various other peers - see The Guardian and CPS.

All of these cases predate the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 which was passed in the wake of the expenses row in 2009.  However, readers may be interested to know that much of that Act is not yet in force though implementation is expected during 2010.

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