Contempt of Parliament

Contempt of Parliament

In some countries, contempt of parliament is the offence of obstructing the legislature in the carrying out of its functions, or of hindering any legislator in the performance of his or her duties. The offence is known by various other names in jurisdictions in which the legislature is not called "parliament". Actions that may constitute contempt of parliament include:

  • Deliberately misleading a house of the legislature, or a legislative committee;
  • refusing to testify before, or to produce documents to, a house or committee; and
  • attempting to influence a member of the legislature by bribery or threats.

In some jurisdictions, a house of parliament may declare any act to constitute contempt, and this is not subject to judicial review. In others, contempt of parliament is defined by statute; while parliament makes the initial decision of whether to punish for contempt, the person or organisation in contempt may appeal to the courts. Some jurisdictions consider contempt of parliament to be a criminal offence.



In the Commonwealth of Australia, the Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987 defines contempt of Parliament as follows:

Conduct (including the use of words)... [which] amounts, or is intended or likely to amount, to an improper interference with the free exercise by a House or committee of its authority or functions, or with the free performance by a member of the member's duties as a member.

Contempt decisions by the House of Representatives or the Senate are thus subject to review by the Federal Courts.

Punishments are limited under the Act to (for individuals) a fine of $5,000 and/or six months' imprisonment, or (for corporations) a fine of $25,000.

In the Senate, allegations of contempt are heard by the Privileges Committee, which decides whether or not a contempt was committed, and if so, what punishment is to be imposed. In practice, there have been very few times when a hearing determined that anyone was in contempt, and on no occasions has anyone been punished beyond a warning, with an apology and/or appropriate remedial action.


See also: Parliamentary censure in Canada and Parliamentary Privilege in Canada

The power to find a person in contempt of Parliament stemmed from Section 18 of the Constitution Act, 1867 in which "The privileges, immunities, and powers to be held, enjoyed... shall not confer any privileges, immunities, or powers exceeding those at the passing of such Act held, enjoyed, and exercised by the Commons House of Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and by the members thereof."[1]

Regarding the above-mentioned "privileges," there is an important difference between the "individual parliamentary privileges" and "collective parliamentary privileges." This difference is also important in any case of "breach of privilege" as it applies to Parliamentary privilege in Canada.

Contempt citation cases for individuals

Rarely has the Canadian federal parliament invoked its power to find an individual in contempt: There were "contempt citation" cases in 1913,[2] 1976,[2] 2003,[2] 2008[2] and 2011.[3]

The April 10, 2008 case involved Royal Canadian Mounted Police deputy commissioner Barbara George who was cited for contempt for deliberately misleading a parliamentary committee over an income trust scandal. She was ultimately found in contempt but was not punished further than the motion itself.[4]

The March 2011 contempt citation case involved Conservative MP Bev Oda.[3] While she was found to be prima facie in contempt by the Speaker, Oda was not formally held in contempt because Parliament was dissolved before a vote could be held on the matter.[5]

Contempt citation cases for governments

On March 9, 2011, Speaker of the Canadian House of Commons Peter Milliken made two Contempt of Parliament rulings: The first found that a Conservative Party cabinet minister, Bev Oda, could possibly be in contempt of Parliament.[3] The second ruling found the Cabinet could possibly be in contempt of Parliament for not meeting Opposition members' requests for details of proposed bills and their cost estimates, an issue which had "been dragging on since the fall of 2010."[3][6] Milliken ruled that both matters must go to their responsible parliamentary committees and that the committee was required to report its findings to the Speaker by March 21, 2011 — one day before the proposal of the budget.

Concerning the Speaker's first ruling, on March 18, 2011, Opposition members of the committee (who outnumbered the government members) said they still judged Oda to be in contempt of Parliament, despite her testimony that day,[7] but the committee process never proceeded far enough to make a finding as to whether Oda was in contempt.[5][6]

Concerning the Speaker's second ruling, on March 21, 2011, the committee tabled a report[8] that found the Government of Canada in contempt of Parliament.[6] As such, a motion of no confidence was introduced in the House.[9] On March 25, 2011, Members of Parliament voted on this motion, declaring a lack of confidence by a vote of 156 to 145 and forcing an election.[10][11] The contempt finding is unique in Canadian history. In a wider context, it is the first time that a government in the 54-member Commonwealth of Nations has been found in contempt of Parliament.[12][13]

Hong Kong

Contempt of the Legislative Council is a criminal offence.[14]

United Kingdom

Contempt of Parliament consists of interference with parliamentary privilege and of certain acts that obstruct the house and its members in their business.

The same rules as apply to the House of Commons apply to the House of Lords mutatis mutandis (i.e. with the necessary modifications).

Parliamentary privilege consists of freedom of speech on the floor of the House and in committee, freedom from arrest, regulating its membership and exclusive cognisance of internal affairs.

Privilege extends to the publication of papers and reports by order of the House, including the official record 'Hansard'.

Freedom from arrest originally prevented the arrest (on criminal as well as civil grounds) of members, their goods and their staff. The freedom from arrest of servants and goods were removed in the 18th century as the privilege was open to abuse, as was immunity from arrest for criminal acts. MPs today are only protected from arrest on civil grounds, for contempt of court.

Regulation of composition extends to determining who is elected and whether they may take their seat. The result of elections is now de facto a matter for an Election Court composed of High Court judges, who issue a certificate to the Speaker in the case of elections where the result is disputed. The House also has exclusive right to determine whether members may take up their seat, including whether a member is eligible to take the relevant oath.

Exclusive cognisance of internal affairs extends to the right to determine the oaths to be taken by members and who may take them (Bradlaugh v Gossett), the right to determine who may use House of Commons facilities and the exclusion of the jurisdiction of the courts as to alcohol sale offences within the Palace of Westminster.

In the United Kingdom, it has been alleged that arresting a member of Parliament in the course of carrying out his duties may constitute contempt of Parliament,[15] although immunity from criminal arrest was removed by the Parliamentary Privilege Acts of the 18th century.

It is further contempt to bribe or attempt to bribe any member (and for any member to accept or solicit a bribe), to disrupt the sittings of the House or a committee—wherever it is sitting, to refuse to appear before a committee to testify, to refuse to answer any question put by a committee, to lie to a committee or to refuse to swear an oath when testifying, or to otherwise obstruct the business of the House.

MPs accused of Contempt of Parliament may be suspended or expelled.[16] They may also be committed to the clock tower under Big Ben,[16] although this practice hasn't been used since Charles Bradlaugh was detained in 1880. Strangers (those who are not members of the House) may be committed to prison during the life of the Parliament. The House of Lords has the power to fine as well as to order imprisonment for a term of years.

United States


  1. ^ Constitution Acts, 1867
  2. ^ a b c d Canwest News Service (April 10, 2008). "Examples of 'rare' contempt of Parliament cases". CanWest MediaWorks Publications Inc. Retrieved 21 March 2011. 
  3. ^ a b c d Laura Payton (March 9, 2011). "PM on rulings: 'win some, lose some'". CBC News. Retrieved 26 March 2011. 
  4. ^ RCMP deputy commissioner found in contempt of Parliament
  5. ^ a b Mike De Souza (March 26, 2011). "Oda off the hook". Montreal Gazette. Retrieved 26 March 2011. 
  6. ^ a b c "MPs' report finds government in contempt". CBC News. March 21. Retrieved 24 March 211. 
  7. ^ Laura Payton (March 18). "MPs to return Monday on contempt debate". CBC News. Retrieved 21 March 2011. 
  8. ^ "Question of Privilege Relating to the Failure of the Government To Fully Provide the Documents as Ordered by the House: Report of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs". 2011-03. Retrieved 2011-04-26. 
  9. ^
  10. ^ CBC News (25 March 2011). "MPs gather for historic vote". CBC. Retrieved 25 March 2011. 
  11. ^ Mayeda, Andrew (March 25, 2011). "Harper government falls". Vancouver Sun. Retrieved 25 March 2011. 
  12. ^ Bruce Cheadle (Mar. 25 2011). "Harper government topples on contempt motion, triggering May election". The Canadian Press; CTV news. Retrieved 25 March 2011. 
  13. ^ Thomas Walkom (March 25, 2011). "Walkom: Yes, contempt of Parliament does matter". Toronto Star. Retrieved 25 March 2011. 
  14. ^ [1]
  15. ^ [Guardian, 28.11.08 "Allegation made by Michael Howard, a lawyer and former Home Secretary"]. Guardian, 28.11.08. 
  16. ^ a b Peter Lyne (March 26, 1964). "Contempt Drama Grips Parliament". The Christian Science Monitor: p. 13. 

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