Parliamentary privilege refers to a set of legal immunities and protections afforded to the members and proceedings of a legislative body, such as a parliament or congress, to ensure that they can perform their duties effectively and without undue interference. These privileges are designed to safeguard the independence, integrity, and functioning of the legislative branch of government.
Freedom of speech: Members of Parliament (MPs) or legislators have the right to speak freely and express their opinions during parliamentary debates and proceedings without fear of legal consequences. This privilege is crucial for open and robust debate within the legislature.
Non-interference: Parliamentary privilege protects MPs and the proceedings of the legislature from interference by the executive branch of government or the judiciary. It ensures that parliamentary decisions and debates are not subject to external influence.
Immunity from legal action: In many jurisdictions, parliamentary privilege grants immunity to MPs from certain legal actions for statements made in the course of their parliamentary duties. This immunity allows MPs to speak candidly without fear of lawsuits.
Exemption from jury service: Jury service is a civic responsibility where eligible citizens are randomly selected and summoned to serve as jurors in a court of law. MPs are often exempt from serving on juries to avoid any conflict with their parliamentary duties.
Control over internal affairs: Legislative bodies have the authority to regulate their own internal affairs, including matters such as the discipline of members and the management of parliamentary business. This principle, known as the exclusive cognisance of parliamentary matters, ensures that external bodies do not interfere in parliamentary affairs.
Protection of parliamentary documents: Parliamentary documents, records, and proceedings are typically protected from disclosure to external parties, unless the legislature decides otherwise. This protection helps maintain the confidentiality and integrity of parliamentary work.
Access to information: Parliamentary privilege may also include the right of MPs to access information needed to carry out their legislative duties, even when such information is confidential or sensitive.
Limitations on Parliamentary Privilege: While parliamentary privilege is essential for the proper functioning of a democratic system, it is not absolute. In many democratic countries, there are limitations on parliamentary privilege to ensure that it is not abused. For example, the Chaytor case highlights the fact that parliamentary privilege does not extend to protect MPs from criminal prosecution.
Parliamentary privilege is a crucial aspect of the separation of powers, safeguarding the independence of the legislative branch from interference by the executive and judicial branches. It allows legislators to engage in frank and open debates, hold the government accountable, and represent their constituents effectively.
You can learn more about this topic with our Public Law notes.