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Privileges and immunity no shield for criminal acts in House, says Supreme Court

Topics Covered: Parliament and State Legislatures – structure, functioning, conduct of business, powers & privileges and issues arising out of these.

Privileges and immunity no shield for criminal acts in House, says Supreme Court:


Context:

The Supreme Court has held that lawmakers cannot indulge in criminal acts on the Parliament or Assembly floors and then take cover behind the right to free speech.

 

What’s the case?

Kerala government has appealed to withdraw prosecution of top Left Democratic Front (LDF) leaders accused of vandalism and wanton destruction of public property on the Assembly floor during a Budget speech in 2015.

  • These leaders had claimed parliamentary privilege, arguing that the incident occurred inside the Assembly hall. They claimed immunity from criminal prosecution.

 

Observations made by the Court:

  1. Acts of vandalism cannot be said to be manifestations of freedom of speech and be termed as ‘proceedings’ of the Assembly.
  2. It was not the intention of the drafters of the Constitution to extend the interpretation of ‘freedom of speech’ to include criminal acts by placing them under a veil of protest.
  3. Legislators cannot unleash violence, run riot in Parliament or a Legislative Assembly and then claim parliamentary privilege and immunity from criminal prosecution.
  4. Boundaries of lawful behaviour apply to all, including MLAs who hold responsible elected office in the Legislative Assembly.

 

True essence of Privileges as per the court:

  1. The purpose of bestowing privileges and immunities to elected members of the legislature was to enable them to perform their “essential functions” without hindrance, fear or favour.
  2. The ‘essential’ function of the House is collective deliberation and decision-making.
  3. These privileges are not a mark of status which makes legislators stand on an unequal pedestal.

 

What are Parliamentary Privileges?

Parliamentary Privileges are certain rights and immunities enjoyed by members of Parliament, individually and collectively, so that they can “effectively discharge their functions”.

  1. Article 105 of the Constitution expressly mentions two privileges, that is, freedom of speech in Parliament and right of publication of its proceedings.
  2. Apart from the privileges as specified in the Constitution, the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908, provides for freedom from arrest and detention of members under civil process during the continuance of the meeting of the House or of a committee thereof and forty days before its commencement and forty days after its conclusion.

 

Motion against breaches:

When any of these rights and immunities are disregarded, the offence is called a breach of privilege and is punishable under law of Parliament.

  • A notice is moved in the form of a motion by any member of either House against those being held guilty of breach of privilege.

 

Role of the Speaker/Rajya Sabha (RS) Chairperson:

The Speaker/RS chairperson is the first level of scrutiny of a privilege motion.

The Speaker/Chair can decide on the privilege motion himself or herself or refer it to the privileges committee of Parliament.

  • If the Speaker/Chair gives consent under relevant rules, the member concerned is given an opportunity to make a short statement.

 

Applicability:

  1. The Constitution also extends the parliamentary privileges to those persons who are entitled to speak and take part in the proceedings of a House of Parliament or any of its committees. These include the Attorney General of India.
  2. The parliamentary privileges do not extend to the President who is also an integral part of the Parliament. Article 361 of the Constitution provides for privileges for the President.

 

Insta Curious: 

Read the curious case of Origin of Parliamentary Privileges. Read Here

 

InstaLinks:

Prelims Link:

  1. Which provisions of the Constitution protect the privileges of the legislature?
  2. What is the procedure to be followed in cases of alleged breach of the legislature’s privilege?
  3. Composition and functions of Privileges Committees in Parliament and State Legislatures.
  4. What is the punishment for an individual who is found guilty of breaching the legislature’s privilege?
  5. Can the Courts intervene in matters involving breach of privileges of state legislatures?

Mains Link:

What do you understand by legislative privileges? Discuss the problem of legislative privileges as seen in India time to time.

Sources: the Hindu.