Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Contempt of Parliament

Apropos of various media accounts today of apparent Conservative efforts to dissuade witnesses from appearing at the Ethics Committee, to wit: "Conservatives suggested witnesses need not attend committee, says Tory agent," "Tories allegedly told to snub committee," "Tory witnesses spurn ethics committee," here's a little reading on contempt of Parliament:
Any disregard of or attack on the rights, powers and immunities of the House and its Members, either by an outside person or body, or by a Member of the House, is referred to as a “breach of privilege” and is punishable by the House. [87] There are, however, other affronts against the dignity and authority of Parliament which may not fall within one of the specifically defined privileges. Thus, the House also claims the right to punish, as a contempt, any action which, though not a breach of a specific privilege, tends to obstruct or impede the House in the performance of its functions; obstructs or impedes any Member or Officer of the House in the discharge of their duties; or is an offence against the authority or dignity of the House, such as disobedience of its legitimate commands or libels upon itself, its Members, or its Officers. [88] “The rationale of the power to punish contempts, whether contempt of court or contempt of the Houses, is that the courts and the two Houses should be able to protect themselves from acts which directly or indirectly impede them in the performance of their functions.” [89] In that sense, all breaches of privilege are contempts of the House, but not all contempts are necessarily breaches of privilege.

Contempts, as opposed to “privileges”, cannot be enumerated or categorized. As Speaker SauvĂ© explained in a 1980 ruling, “ … while our privileges are defined, contempt of the House has no limits. When new ways are found to interfere with our proceedings, so too will the House, in appropriate cases, be able to find that a contempt of the House has occurred.” [90]
The procedure to deal with contempt in standing committees of the House:
Since the House has not given its committees the power to punish any misconduct, breach of privilege, or contempt directly, committees cannot decide such matters; they can only report them to the House. Only the House can decide if an offence has been committed. [354] Speakers have consistently ruled that, except in the most extreme situations, they will only hear questions of privilege arising from committee proceedings upon presentation of a report from the committee which directly deals with the matter and not as a question of privilege raised by an individual Member. [355] Most matters which have been reported by committees concerned the behaviour of Members, witnesses or the public. Committees have reported to the House on the refusal of witnesses to appear when summoned; [356] the refusal of witnesses to answer questions; [357] the refusal of witnesses to provide papers or records; [358] the refusal of individuals to obey orders of a committee; [359] and the divulging of events during an in camera meeting. [360] Committees could report on instances of contempt, such as behaviour showing disrespect for the authority or activities of a committee, the intimidation of members or witnesses, or witnesses refusing to be sworn or lying to the committee.
Keep on keepin' on, Conservatives...there are lots of procedural roads to go down in order to deal with obstruction of a committee.