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Parliamentary Privileges

What is the meaning of parliamentary privilege?

Parliamentary privilege refers to the privileges and immunities enjoyed by Parliament as an institution and by MPs in their individual capacities, without which they will be unable to carry out their constitutionally mandated functions.

Parliament is required by the Constitution to define the rights, privileges, and immunities of Parliament and Members of Parliament. No legislation has been adopted in this area to date. Without any legislation, it is governed by British parliamentary customs.

Certain privileges are specified in the Indian Constitution. These are the following: freedom of speech in Parliament; immunity of a member from prosecution in any court for anything said or voted in Parliament or any committee thereof; immunity of a person from prosecution in any court for the publication of any report, paper, vote, or proceeding by or under the authority of either House of Parliament.  Courts are barred from examining the validity of any Parliamentary proceedings on the basis of an alleged procedural irregularity. No officer or Member of Parliament vested with the authority to regulate procedure or conduct business or to preserve order in Parliament can be brought before a court for the exercise of such powers by him. Unless malice is established, no person can be held accountable in any court for publishing in a newspaper a basically true report of any proceedings of either House of Parliament. This immunity is also applicable to reports or communications transmitted using wireless telegraphy. This immunity, however, does not apply to the publication of the proceedings of a House secret session.

What Constitutes Breach of Privilege?

According to the LS Secretariat, any individual or body acting in violation of or attacking any of the members' privileges, rights, or immunities, "either individually or collectively... is referred to as a breach of privilege and is penalised by the House."  

According to the Rajya Sabha Secretariat, the House determines what constitutes a breach of privilege, and the House's "penal jurisdiction in this regard encompasses both members and strangers."Additionally, the House has the authority to prosecute "any conduct constituting a violation of privileges, whether committed in the actual presence of the House or elsewhere." Thus, even persons who are not members of Parliament might face sanctions for violating privilege.

Apart from breaches of privilege, a House may initiate contempt proceedings in the event of an offence "against the House's authority or dignity, such as disobedience to its legal commands or libels against the House, its members, or officers." "'.

What is the penalty for a breach of privilege or a charge of contempt of the House?

If a person is found guilty of a breach of privilege or contempt of the House, he or she may face jail or an admonition or reprimand. When it comes to MPs, "two additional sanctions may be imposed for contempt, namely'suspension' and 'expulsion' from the House."

In a 2007 breach of privilege complaint brought against Ambassador Ronen Sen, the Lok Sabha Committee on Privileges determined that Shri Sen did not use the expression "headless chicken" in reference to MPs or politicians. He was not prosecuted. In 2008, an editor of an Urdu weekly referred to the deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha as a "coward" over a judgement he made. The editor was found guilty of violating the editor's privilege by the privileges committee. Rather of recommending punishment, the committee concluded that "it would be preferable if the House preserved its own dignity by not attaching undue credence to such irresponsible writings produced solely for the purpose of obtaining cheap publicity."

Privilege Motion - What Is It?

To bring an issue concerning a breach of privilege or contempt in either House, an MP must acquire the consent of the presiding officer — the Speaker in Lok Sabha and the Chair in Rajya Sabha — from the presiding officer. According to the Lok Sabha's rule book, a member who desires to "raise a question of privilege" must notify the Secretary-General in writing prior to the start of the sitting by 10 a.m. on the day the issue is proposed to be raised "'.

However, not more than one question of privilege may be asked in a single sitting, and the regulations provide that "the query should be limited to a recent incident.". After receiving notice, the Speaker may accede to or deny raising the issue of privilege in the House. If consent is granted, the MP who served notice must seek permission from the House to raise the issue of privilege, which must be introduced with the support of at least 25 members of the House.

Once allowed, the House may either take up the case or, as is customary, submit it to the Committee of Privileges, which in the Lok Sabha is a panel of 15 members recruited from diverse political parties. The House then awaits the committee's report on the subject before taking action. The Rajya Sabha's Committee on Privileges is composed of ten members.

Conclusion/Way Forward: Need for Codification

One of the most contentious issues in this area is the codification of privileges. Though Articles 105 and 194 of the Constitution provide a basic outline of privileges and leave it to Parliament to codify them, which has not yet been done.

In this scenario, where the codification has not yet been completed, legislators have sufficient opportunity to abuse this clause. It is not a licence to do anything and everything;  it was intended to serve as a guideline within which the legislator can operate.


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