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parliamentary privilege


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Special rights and immunities enjoyed by the Houses of Parliament and their members to enable them to carry out their functions effectively and without external interference. They are conferred mainly by the common law but partly by statute; they can be extended by statute but not by the resolution of either House.

The Commons have five main privileges:(1) The right of collective access to the sovereign through the Speaker.(2) The right of individual members to be free from civil (but not criminal) arrest. Since the abolition of imprisonment for debt, this privilege has been of only minor significance, but it would still shield a member against (for example) imprisonment for disobeying a court order in civil proceedings.(3) The individual right to freedom of speech. This substantial privilege means that a member cannot be made liable either civilly (e.g. for defamation) or criminally (e.g. for breach of the Official Secrets Acts) for anything said by him in the course of debates or other parliamentary proceedings. Under the Parliamentary Papers Act 1840 members are also not liable for statements repeated in reports published on the authority of the House.(4) The collective right to exclusive control of its own proceedings, so that it can (for example) exclude the public, prohibit reporting, and expel any member whom it may consider unfit to sit.(5) The collective right to punish for any breach of privilege or other contempt. Examples of breaches of privilege are initiating defamation proceedings in respect of privileged words and the reporting of secret proceedings. Other contempts include any conduct prejudicial to the proper functioning or dignity of the House, e.g. by refusing to give evidence to a committee, bribing members, or insulting the House. Members may be punished for contempt by expulsion, suspension, or imprisonment; others by reprimand or imprisonment. Imprisonment is terminated by prorogation. Whether or not particular conduct amounts to a contempt, and if so what punishment (if any) is appropriate, is considered by the Committee of Privileges, whose report the House is free to accept or reject after debate.The privileges of the Lords are similar, except that members have an individual right of access to the sovereign and the House can fine for contempt and imprison for a fixed term, which is not affected by prorogation.

(1) The right of collective access to the sovereign through the Speaker.

(2) The right of individual members to be free from civil (but not criminal) arrest. Since the abolition of imprisonment for debt, this privilege has been of only minor significance, but it would still shield a member against (for example) imprisonment for disobeying a court order in civil proceedings.

(3) The individual right to freedom of speech. This substantial privilege means that a member cannot be made liable either civilly (e.g. for defamation) or criminally (e.g. for breach of the Official Secrets Acts) for anything said by him in the course of debates or other parliamentary proceedings. Under the Parliamentary Papers Act 1840 members are also not liable for statements repeated in reports published on the authority of the House.

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Subjects: Law.


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