Syllabus: General Studies Paper 2
The Supreme Court has rejected the Kerala government’s plea to withdraw criminal cases against its MLAs who were charged in the assembly.
The Supreme Court held that legislators who indulge in vandalism and general mayhem cannot claim parliamentary privilege and immunity from criminal prosecution against leaders who destroyed public property and disrupted a Budget speech (on the State Assembly floor in 2015 Kerala government).
About Privileges and Legal immunity:
- Feature of parliamentary privileges in the Indian Constitution is borrowed from the British Constitution.
- The British Constitution is a source of other borrowed features like parliamentary government, the rule of law, legislative procedure, single citizenship, cabinet system, prerogative writs, and bicameralism.
- Legislative privileges are defined as special powers given to the legislators so as to enable them to carry out their role of framing laws in an unbridled manner and also, they are able to express their views inside the parliament without any fear of legal proceedings against them.
- Legislative privileges draw their origin from the British parliament and is a convention that is being followed as the “cornerstone of British parliament”.
- It was inserted as part of the constituent assembly as temporary in character but it has prevailed since then and forms part of 105 and 194 Articles of the Constitution.
- Rule No 222in Chapter 20 of the Lok Sabha Rule Book and correspondingly Rule 187 in Chapter 16 of the Rajya Sabha rulebook governs privilege.
- Since Independence we have witnessed many instances of arbitrary usage of such powers, shadowing the fundamental rights of the citizens.
Benefits of a parliamentary privilege:
- The exemptions, rights or immunities provided to the members of each house of the parliament and the parliament committees secure the independence and effectiveness of the actions taken by them.
- The parliamentary privileges help maintain the dignity, authority and honour of the members of parliament.
- The parliamentary privileges help secure the members of the houses from any obstruction in their discharge of actions.
- Right to publish records, reports, debates and prohibit others from doing the same. However, by 44thamendment others can publish true reports of proceedings except for secret sittings without permission of the house.
- Right to have secret sittings
- Right to be informed of the arrest and release of members
- Right to punish for its contempt or breach of privilege
- No court can inquire into proceedings of the house or any committees. No legal process [civil/criminal] can be served without informing the presiding officer.
- They cannot be arrested during sessions of the parliament. 40 days before beginning and 40 days after the end of each session. This extends to civil cases not criminal cases or preventive detention.
- They have freedom of speech in parliament. No member can be held liable for anything said or vote given in parliament in any court.
- Can refuse to give evidence or bear witness during parliament sessions.
Breach of privilege is an act by which any person or authority attacks the rights, immunities or privileges of an individual or house.
Contempt of house is an act or omission which may or may not breach any specific privilege but lower dignity and authority of the house. Thus, it has a wider implication.
SC: Criminal acts by Lawmakers: Legal immunity cannot be extended:
- The Supreme Court ruling that legislative privilege cannot be extended to provide legal immunity to criminal acts committed by lawmakers ought to be welcomed for two reasons.
- It lays down that legislators charged with unruly behaviour that results in offences under penal laws cannot be protected either by their privilege or their free speech rights.
- Second, the decision revivifies the law relating to a prosecutor’s role in withdrawing an ongoing criminal case.
- Vandalism on the Assembly floor could not be equated with the right to protest by Opposition legislators.
- Destruction of public property could not be equated with the exercise of freedom of speech.
- It was definitely not for them to “betray the trust of the people” who elected them as lawmakers by engaging in wanton destruction of public property in the Assembly and then claim privilege and immunity from the very process of law.
- Parliamentary privileges and immunities are not ‘gateways’ for legislators to claim exceptions from the law of the land, especially criminal law.
Legislative privilege and parliamentary free speech are necessary elements of a lawmaker’s freedom to function, but it is difficult to disagree with the Court’s conclusion that an alleged act of destroying public property within the House cannot be considered “essential” for their legislative functions.
It’s high time that the privileges are “defined and delimited” and the judiciary steps in to protect its citizen, the fights between India’s legislatures and her fundamental rights.
The Hindu Link:
Question: What do you understand by legislative privileges? Discuss the problem of legislative privileges as seen in India from time to time.