Rights and Immunities of Individual Members

The extent of the rights, privileges and immunities of individual Members is limited by the Constitution. There is a recognized list that can only be expanded upon if it can be clearly demonstrated that the claimed privilege is necessary for Members to carry out their parliamentary functions. They could also be set out in statute, so long as the privilege is no greater than that which existed in the United Kingdom at Confederation.

The rights, privileges and immunities of individual Members of the House may be categorized as follows:

  • freedom of speech;
  • freedom from arrest in civil actions;
  • exemption from jury duty;
  • exemption from being subpoenaed to attend court as a witness; and
  • freedom from obstruction, interference, intimidation and molestation.

Freedom of Speech

By far, the most important right accorded to Members of the House is the exercise of freedom of speech in parliamentary proceedings. It has been described as:

… a fundamental right without which they would be hampered in the performance of their duties. It permits them to speak in the House without inhibition, to refer to any matter or express any opinion as they see fit, to say what they feel needs to be said in the furtherance of the national interest and the aspirations of their constituents.145

Much has been written about this over the centuries in Great Britain, Canada and throughout the Commonwealth.146 In Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice, this privilege is expressed in broader terms as immunity of proceedings from impeachment and question in the courts.147 It is also stated that this is the only immunity of substance possessed by the Houses of Parliament and their Members and committees.148 Odgers asserts that there are two aspects to the immunity:

First, there is the immunity from civil or criminal action and examination in legal proceedings of members of the Houses and of witnesses and others taking part in proceedings in Parliament… . Secondly, there is the immunity of parliamentary proceedings as such from impeachment or question in the courts.149

A similar position has been adopted in Canada in a decision of the Commission of Inquiry into the Sponsorship Program and Advertising Activities which indicated that allowing transcripts from a committee to be used in a public inquiry to question witnesses could result in the proceedings in the committee being questioned or impeached. This decision was upheld by the Federal Court.150

The right to freedom of speech is protected by the Constitution Act, 1867 and the Parliament of Canada Act.151 The statutory existence of parliamentary privilege in relation to freedom of speech dates from the adoption of the English Bill of Rights in 1689. Though meant to counter the challenge of the Crown, it also prohibited actions of any kind by any person outside the House against Members for what they might say or do in Parliament. Article 9 of that statute declares that “the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament”.152

Generally considered to be an individual privilege, the courts have confirmed that freedom of speech is also a collective privilege of the House. Motions carried by the House are expressed collectively by its Members and therefore cannot be challenged in a court of law.153

Proceedings in Parliament

The privilege of freedom of speech is generally regarded as being limited to “proceedings in Parliament”. No definition of “proceedings in Parliament” is contained in the English Bill of Rights and there is no statutory definition in Canada. May defines it as follows:

The primary meaning of proceedings, as a technical parliamentary term, which it had as least as early as the seventeenth century, is some formal action, usually a decision, taken by the House in its collective capacity. While business which involves actions and decisions of the House are clearly proceedings, debate is an intrinsic part of that process which is recognised by its inclusion in the formulation of article IX. An individual Member takes part in a proceeding usually by speech, but also by various recognized forms of formal action, such as voting, giving notice of a motion, or presenting a petition or report from a committee, most of such actions being time-saving substitutes for speaking. Officers of the House take part in its proceedings principally by carrying out its orders, general or particular. Members of the public also may take part in the proceedings of a House, for example by giving evidence before it or one of its committees, or by securing the presentation of a petition.154

The Parliament of Australia enacted the Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987 which defines “proceedings in Parliament” as follows:

… all words spoken and acts done in the course of, or for purposes of or incidental to, the transacting of the business of a House or of a committee, and, without limiting the generality of the foregoing, includes–

  1. the giving of evidence before a House or a committee, and evidence so given;
  2. the presentation or submission of a document to a House or a committee;
  3. the preparation of a document for purposes of or incidental to the transacting of any such business; and
  4. the formulation, making or publication of a document, including a report, by or pursuant to an order of a House or a committee and the document so formulated, made or published.155

From the numerous court cases where the law of parliamentary privilege has been applied in Canada, it is clear that the courts understand the meaning of the term and see it as part of the law of Canada. However, the courts have been reluctant to extend the immunity deriving from the privilege of free speech beyond the context of parliamentary proceedings. In other words, despite the fact that the role of a Member of the House of Commons has evolved considerably since the 17th century when the rule was formulated in the Bill of Rights, 1689, the courts have, with few exceptions, confined the scope of this immunity to the traditional role of Members as debaters and legislators in Parliament.156

Importance of Freedom of Speech

Freedom of speech permits Members to speak freely in the Chamber during a sitting or in committees during meetings while enjoying complete immunity from prosecution or civil liability for any comment they might make.157 This freedom is essential for the effective working of the House. Under it, Members are able to make statements or allegations about outside bodies or persons which they might hesitate to make without the protection of privilege. Though this is often criticized, the freedom to make allegations which the Member genuinely believes at the time to be true, or at least worthy of investigation, is fundamental. The House of Commons could not work effectively unless its Members were able to speak and criticize without having to account to any outside body. There would be no freedom of speech if everything had to be proven true before it was uttered. In ruling on a question of privilege in 1984, Speaker Bosley affirmed that “the privilege of a Member of Parliament when speaking in the House or in a committee is absolute, and that it would be very difficult to find that any statement made under the cloak of parliamentary privilege constituted a violation of that privilege”.158

This right is also extended to individuals who appear before the House or its committees in order to encourage truthful and complete disclosure, without fear of reprisal or other adverse actions as a result of their testimony. In 2005, the Federal Court of Appeal ruled that the testimony of parliamentary witnesses fell within the scope of parliamentary privilege because it is necessary for the functioning of Parliament for three reasons: “to encourage witnesses to speak openly before the Parliamentary committee, to allow the committee to exercise its investigative function and, in a more secondary way, to avoid contradictory findings of fact”.159

In 2007, the Federal Court again recognized that a witness’s testimony before a House committee is protected by parliamentary privilege:

[A]lthough witnesses before a parliamentary committee are not Members of Parliament, they are not strangers to the House either. Rather they are guests who are afforded parliamentary privilege because, as with members, the privilege is necessary to ensure that they are able to speak openly, free from the fear that their words will be used against them in subsequent proceedings … .160

The Court confirmed that parliamentary privilege “precludes other entities from holding Members of Parliament or witnesses before committees liable for statements made in the discharge of their functions in the House”.161

Although the testimony of a witness before a parliamentary committee is protected by parliamentary privilege, allegations that a witness has lied or misled a committee are taken seriously and may be pursued by the committee.162 If a committee determines that a witness has given untruthful testimony, it may report the matter to the House.163 The House alone is responsible for deciding if the witness has deliberately misled the committee and is in contempt of the House, as well as for determining the appropriate punitive action.164 If the House determines that a witness has lied while testifying under oath and the House deems it appropriate, it may waive its privileges over the testimony and refer the matter to the Crown to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to charge the witness with perjury for deliberately lying to a parliamentary committee.165

Limitations on Freedom of Speech

Remarks Made Outside of Debate

The privilege of freedom of speech is not limitless and grey areas remain. Members may be confident of the protection given to their speeches in the House and other formal proceedings, but can never be certain how far their freedom of speech and parliamentary action extends.166 The parliamentary privilege of freedom of speech applies to a Member’s speech in the House and other proceedings of the House itself, but may not fully apply to reports of proceedings or debates published by newspapers or others outside Parliament. Parliamentary privilege may not protect a Member republishing his or her own speech separate from the official record.

Members should be aware that utterances which are absolutely privileged when made within a parliamentary proceeding may not be when repeated in another context, such as in a press release, a householder mailing, on an Internet site, in a television or radio interview, at a public meeting or in the constituency office. Members also act at their peril when they transmit otherwise defamatory material for purposes unconnected with a parliamentary proceeding. Thus, comments made by a Member at a function as an elected representative—but outside the forum of Parliament—would likely not be covered by this privilege, even if the Member were quoting from his or her own speech made in a parliamentary proceeding.167 Telecommunications, including technology such as electronic mail, and the Internet, should therefore not be used to transmit otherwise defamatory material.

The publication of defamatory material has been considered by most courts to be beyond the privileges of Parliament when such publication was not part of the parliamentary process to begin with.168 Even correspondence between one Member and another on a matter of public policy may not be considered to be privileged.169 Courts take a distinctly “functional” approach to the interpretation of parliamentary privilege by relating any novel situation in which a Member may become involved back to the function and purpose that parliamentary privilege was originally intended to serve: the need for Members of Parliament to be able to fearlessly debate issues of public policy in Parliament. In 2006, the Federal Court confirmed that, since communications to constituents are not part of a parliamentary proceeding, they are not protected by parliamentary privilege.170

Misuse of Freedom of Speech

The privilege of freedom of speech is an extremely powerful immunity and on occasion Speakers have had to caution Members about its misuse. Ruling on a question of privilege in 1987, Speaker Fraser spoke at length about the importance of freedom of speech and the need for care in what Members say:

There are only two kinds of institutions in this land to which this awesome and far-reaching privilege [of freedom of speech] extends—Parliament and the legislatures on the one hand and the courts on the other. These institutions enjoy the protection of absolute privilege because of the overriding need to ensure that the truth can be told, that any questions can be asked, and that debate can be free and uninhibited. Absolute privilege ensures that those performing their legitimate functions in these vital institutions of Government shall not be exposed to the possibility of legal action. This is necessary in the national interest and has been considered necessary under our democratic system for hundreds of years. It allows our judicial system and our parliamentary system to operate free of any hindrance.

Such a privilege confers grave responsibilities on those who are protected by it. By that I mean specifically the Hon. Members of this place. The consequences of its abuse can be terrible. Innocent people could be slandered with no redress available to them. Reputations could be destroyed on the basis of false rumour. All Hon. Members are conscious of the care they must exercise in availing themselves of their absolute privilege of freedom of speech. That is why there are long-standing practices and traditions observed in this House to counter the potential for abuse.171

Speaker Parent also emphasized the need for Members to use great care in exercising their right to speak freely in the House:

… paramount to our political and parliamentary systems is the principle of freedom of speech, a member’s right to stand in this House unhindered to speak his or her mind. However when debate in the House centres on sensitive issues, as it often does, I would expect that members would always bear in mind the possible effects of their statements and hence be prudent in their tone and choice of words.172

Speakers have also stated that although there is a need for Members to express their opinions openly in a direct fashion, it is also important that citizens’ reputations not be unfairly attacked. In a ruling on a question of privilege involving an individual who was not a Member of the House, Speaker Fraser expressed concern that the person had been referred to by name: “But we are living in a day when anything said in this place is said right across the country and that is why I have said before and why I say again that care ought to be exercised, keeping in mind that the great privilege we do have ought not to be abused”.173 Speaker Milliken echoed this, stating:

It is incumbent upon all members to exercise fairness with respect to those who are not in a position to defend themselves.174

Speaker Fraser also observed that the use of suggestive language or innuendo with regard to individuals or an individual’s associations with others can provoke an angry response which inevitably leads the House into disorder. Specifically referring to individuals outside the Chamber, he agreed with a suggestion that the House consider constraining itself “in making comments about someone outside this Chamber which would in fact be defamatory under the laws of our country if made outside the Chamber”.175 As Speaker Milliken noted in 2003:

Speakers discourage members of Parliament from using names in speeches if they are speaking ill of some other person because, with parliamentary privilege applying to what they say, anything that is damaging to the reputation or to the individual, … is then liable to be published with the cover of parliamentary privilege and the person is unable to bring any action in respect of those claims.176

Sub judice Convention

There are other limitations to the privilege of freedom of speech, most notably the sub judice (under the consideration of a judge or court of record) convention.177 It is accepted practice that, in the interests of justice and fair play, certain restrictions should be placed on the freedom of Members of Parliament to make reference in the course of debate to matters awaiting judicial decisions, and that such matters should not be the subject of motions or questions in the House. Though loosely defined, the interpretation of this convention is left to the Speaker. The word “convention” is used as no rule exists to prevent Parliament from discussing a matter which is sub judice. The acceptance of a restriction is a voluntary restraint on the part of the House to protect an accused person or other party to a court action or judicial inquiry from suffering any prejudicial effect from public discussion of the issue.178 While certain precedents exist for the guidance of the Chair, no attempt has ever been made to codify the practice in the House of Commons.179

The sub judice convention is important in the conduct of business in the House. It protects the rights of interested parties before the courts, and preserves and maintains the separation and mutual respect between the legislature and the judiciary. The convention ensures that a balance is created between the need for a separate, impartial judiciary and free speech.

The practice has evolved so that it is the Speaker who decides what jurisdiction the Chair has over matters sub judice.180 In 1977, the First Report of the Special Committee on the Rights and Immunities of Members recommended that the imposition of the convention should be done with discretion and, when there was any doubt in the mind of the Chair, a presumption should exist in favour of allowing debate and against the application of the convention.181 Since the presentation of the report, Speakers have followed these guidelines while using discretion.182

In a 2013 ruling, Speaker Scheer addressed these issues:

As Speaker, I must endeavour to find a balance between the right of the House to debate a matter and the effect that this debate might have. This is particularly important given that the purpose of the sub judice convention is to ensure that judicial decisions can be made free of undue influence.

… in the case before us, while the sub judice convention does not prevent debate on the matter, the fact remains that the heart of this question of privilege is still before the courts, which have yet to make a finding. I believe that it would be prudent for the House to use caution in taking steps that could result in an investigatory process that would, in many ways, run parallel to the court proceedings, particularly given that the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada is already a party to the court proceedings and would be a central figure in any consideration the House might give this matter.183

Authority of the Speaker

A further limitation on the freedom of speech of Members is provided by the authority of the Speaker under the Standing Orders to preserve order and decorum, and when necessary to order a Member to resume his or her seat if engaged in irrelevance or repetition in debate, or to name a Member for disregarding the authority of the Chair and order him or her to withdraw.184

Waiving the Privilege of Freedom of Speech

The House determines how it exercises its privileges and if it wants to assert these privileges or not. There have been instances where the House has been asked to waive, in particular, its privilege of freedom of speech to allow its proceedings and transcripts of proceedings to be examined in courts or elsewhere. On two occasions, in 1892 and in 1978, at the request of a judicial body, the House chose not to insist on its privilege of freedom of speech.

In the late 1880s, Thomas McGreevy (Quebec West) was accused of abusing his position by taking bribes and offering to use his influence to help the firm of Larkin, Connolly & Co. secure a dredging contract for the harbour of Quebec City. The matter was referred to the Standing Committee on Privileges and Elections where Mr. McGreevy was asked about his relationship with the firm. The Member refused to answer. Mr. McGreevy was subsequently expelled from the House and charges of conspiracy were contemplated against both Mr. McGreevy and Nicholas Connolly, partner at Larkin, Connolly & Co. In order to obtain the warrant to formally charge the two men, the Crown prosecutor filed the transcripts of the committee evidence with the magistrate. The magistrate refused to consider the transcripts on the basis that the evidence was protected by parliamentary privilege. On a judicial review, the Ontario High Court of Justice upheld the magistrate’s decision; the High Court also indicated that the House could choose to waive its privileges. On April 12, 1892, the House of Commons resolved to allow the evidence to go before the magistrate, stipulating that in allowing this limited use, it was not giving up any of its privileges.185

In 1978, the Standing Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs held hearings into alleged wrongdoings by members of the RCMP. In the course of its proceedings, certain witnesses requested and were granted permission to testify in camera. Months later, a commission of inquiry was established to investigate the allegations and in the course of its inquiry, the commission requested access to the tapes and transcripts of the in camera proceedings. On December 14, 1978, the House of Commons ordered that “the committee be authorized to make such evidence adduced in camera available to the Commission of Inquiry … under such terms as may be established by the Committee”.186 The Committee was concerned about releasing its evidence given that it had assured the witnesses that they would be able to testify in camera. The Committee wrote to each of the witnesses requesting their permission to allow the commission to examine their testimony. Upon receipt of the witnesses’ permission, the Committee released the transcripts to the commission on the condition that they be examined in camera and returned to the Committee forthwith.

In 2004, the House of Commons was again asked to waive its privilege of freedom of speech. A commission of inquiry (known as the Gomery Inquiry after its Commissioner, Justice John Gomery) had been established to investigate and report on questions raised in the November 2003 Report of the Auditor General with respect to the sponsorship and advertising activities of the Government of Canada. Questions had arisen as to whether counsel at the Commission could cross-examine witnesses on the basis of their statements before the Standing Committee on Public Accounts during its hearings into the Report.187 The Standing Committee on Public Accounts considered the request and presented a report to the House on the matter on November 5, 2004. The Committee recommended that the House resolve to reaffirm all of its privileges, powers and immunities as provided by section 18 of the Constitution Act, 1867, section 4 of the Parliament of Canada Act, and Article 9 of the Bill of Rights, 1689, as well as the extension of those privileges to committees of the House and to anyone participating in their proceedings. In addition, the Committee recommended that the question of when privilege may be waived, and whether it may be waived in the case of the Gomery Inquiry, be referred to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. The House concurred in the report on November 15, 2004.188 In its Fourteenth Report, presented to the House and concurred in on November 18, 2004, the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs recommended that the privileges and immunities as set down in the Third Report of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts be reaffirmed and that the proceedings, evidence, submissions and testimony of all persons testifying before the said Committee continue to be protected by the House.189 In particular, the Committee stated:

Some witnesses who appeared before the Standing Committee on Public Accounts were given written or oral assurances and others could assume that their testimony would be protected by parliamentary privilege. To withdraw such protection after the fact would be unfair to them as individuals. Moreover, as a matter of principle, it would be contrary to the best interests of Parliament and parliamentary rights. Members of Parliament and other persons participating in parliamentary proceedings must be assured that there is complete freedom of speech, so that they are able to be as open and forthright as possible.190

In 2007, the House was again asked to waive its privilege of freedom of speech in order to allow the testimony of a witness, who had appeared before the Standing Committee on Public Accounts with respect to its inquiry into the administration of the RCMP’s pension and insurance plans, to be admitted as evidence in a criminal prosecution. The Committee considered the request and recommended that the House reaffirm “the parliamentary privileges and immunities of freedom of speech, which precludes the use of testimony before a parliamentary committee in any other legal proceeding or process, including investigations undertaken for possible criminal prosecution”. In addition, the Committee recommended that the House not waive parliamentary privilege in this particular case.191 The House concurred in the report the same day.192

Similarly, in 2009, the Commission of Inquiry into Certain Allegations Respecting Business and Financial Dealings between Karlheinz Schreiber and the Right Honourable Brian Mulroney requested leave of the House of Commons to refer in Commission proceedings to testimony that was given before the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. The Committee recommended that “… the privileges, immunities and proceedings and all evidence, submissions and testimony by all persons participating in the proceedings of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics continue to be protected by all the privileges and immunities of this House…”. The House concurred in the Report193 the day it was presented.

The Parliaments of the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand have each established committees to consider whether or not and to what extent a legislature could waive the protections of Article 9 of the Bill of Rights, 1689. All three committees concluded that, absent clear authority, the privileges could not or should not under any circumstances be waived:

  • The provisions of Article 9 are a matter of public importance and were enacted for the protection of the public interest and, absent statutory amendment, cannot be waived.
  • To allow waiver by a simple majority, the question could be open to abuse by a majority at the expense of a minority or a single Member.
  • A waiver could stifle free speech since at the time of testifying, the person will not know whether at some future date the protection of the privileges of the House will not be withdrawn.
  • A waiver could lead to further and more frequent requests for waivers.
  • The provisions of Article 9 not only constitutionally grant the right of free speech to the House but also constitutionally restrict the jurisdiction of courts and other places. It is not certain that the House alone, by waiving its privileges, can enlarge the constitutionally circumscribed jurisdiction of the courts.194

Freedom from Arrest in Civil Actions

Freedom from arrest in civil actions is the oldest privilege of the House of Commons, predating freedom of speech in the United Kingdom.195 The immunity exists because the House has the pre-eminent claim to the attendance and service of its Members, free from restraint or intimidation particularly by means of legal arrest in civil process. It has applied only to arrest and imprisonment under civil process and does not interfere with the administration of criminal justice.

Any incident of a criminal nature in which a Member has been charged is not a matter where immunity from arrest will protect that Member.196 Indeed, Members are not above the law. This is in accordance with the principle laid down by the British House of Commons in a conference with the House of Lords in 1641 where it was stated: “Privilege of Parliament is granted in regard of the service of the Commonwealth and is not to be used to the danger of the Commonwealth”.197 In its 1967 report, the British House of Commons Select Committee on Parliamentary Privilege noted that it could see no reason why, unless the circumstances are exceptional, a Member should be able to claim immunity from the normal process of the courts.198

The right to freedom from interference in the discharge of parliamentary duties does not apply to actions taken by Members outside of parliamentary proceedings which could lead to criminal charges. Matters of a criminal nature would include treason, felonies, breaches of the peace, breaches of provincial statutes (considered quasi-criminal) which involve the summary jurisdiction of the Criminal Code, forcible entries, kidnapping, printing and publishing seditious libel, and criminal contempt of court (though not civil contempt). A Member of the House of Commons is in exactly the same position as any other citizen if he or she is suspected of, charged with, or found guilty of a crime, provided that it is unrelated to a proceeding in Parliament.199

If Members are charged with infractions of the law, then they must abide by the due process of law just like any other citizen. To do otherwise would be contemptuous of the justice system. While a Member is protected from arrest for civil contempt of court, there is no protection from arrest for criminal contempt of court.200 If a Member is arrested on a criminal charge or is committed for a contempt of court, the House should be notified by the authorities if it is in session.201 Similarly, if a Member is sent to prison after a conviction, the House is informed by way of a letter addressed to the Speaker by the judge or magistrate.202

Whatever privilege of freedom from civil arrest a Member may claim, it exists from the moment of the execution of the return of the writ of election by the returning officer. It continues while the House is sitting and also applies 40 days before and after a session of Parliament and 40 days following the dissolution of Parliament.203

Senior officials of the House whose duties require them to be in immediate attendance of the services of the House are exempt from civil arrest as are witnesses and other persons with business before the House while entering and leaving the premises and while in attendance at the proceedings of the House or one of its committees.204

Exemption from Jury Duty

Since the House of Commons has first claim on the attendance and service of its Members, and since the courts have a large body of individuals to call upon to serve on juries, it is not essential that Members of Parliament be obliged to serve as jurors. This was the tradition in the United Kingdom long before Confederation and this has been the Canadian practice since 1867.205 The duty of Members to attend to their functions as elected representatives is in the best interests of the nation and is considered to supersede any obligation to serve as jurors. It has also been recognized in law.206

One of the rights of the House is to provide for the protection of its officers so that they may assist in its deliberations. Therefore, senior officials of the House are exempt from jury duty under the same circumstances as Members, as are individuals summoned to appear before the House or its committees.207

Exemption from Being Subpoenaed to Attend Court as a Witness

The right of the House to the attendance and service of its Members exempts a Member, when the House is in session, from the normal obligation of a citizen to comply with a subpoena to attend a court as a witness.208 This exemption applies in civil, criminal and military matters before the courts.209 However, this claim is not intended to be used to impede the course of justice and, therefore, is regularly waived, particularly for criminal cases.210 When the House is in session, should a subpoena or other legal process be served on a Member, the Member may wish to appear in court if the Member feels that absence from court might affect the course of justice. However, the Member still has a right to claim the privilege of exemption from appearing as a witness.211 A Member may give evidence voluntarily without any formality, even on a day when the House is sitting or scheduled to meet,212 but if he or she does so, the Member surrenders the protection this privilege provides.213

Members are exempt from appearing as a witness in any court when the House is in session, 40 days before and after a session, and 40 days following a dissolution of Parliament.214 This includes periods when Parliament is prorogued. Speaker Fraser reinforced this claim in a May 1989 ruling: “… the right of a Member of Parliament to refuse to attend court as a witness during a parliamentary session and during the 40 days preceding and following a parliamentary session is an undoubted and inalienable right supported by a host of precedents”.215

The courts have not always agreed with this viewpoint. In 2003, the matter of the extent of this privilege was the subject of a case before the courts in British Columbia and it was determined that the privilege does not extend beyond the session.216 In 2007, the Quebec Court of Appeal upheld an earlier decision of the Quebec Superior Court which found that, while a Member has immunity from appearing as a witness when Parliament is in session, this immunity does not extend to a Member as a party to the litigation. Relying on the United Kingdom Parliamentary Privileges Act, 1770, the Court stated that the Member’s legal obligations had priority over his parliamentary responsibilities. Nonetheless, the Court urged the parties and the courts to try to schedule trial dates around the parliamentary calendar.217

The position in Ontario is somewhat different. The courts in this province have accepted that the privilege extends for 40 days before and 40 days after each session.218 The courts have also decided that the summons for an examination is equivalent to a subpoena for a witness and, therefore, the exemption period of 40 days before and after a session of Parliament applies.219

Just as in the case of jury service, senior House officials or individuals summoned to appear before the House or its committees are also exempt from appearing as witnesses in court if their services are needed by the House.220

Freedom from Obstruction, Interference, Intimidation and Molestation

Members of Parliament, by the nature of their office and the variety of work they are called upon to perform, come into contact with a wide range of individuals and groups. Members can, therefore, be subject to all manner of interference, obstruction and influences.

In order to fulfill their parliamentary duties, Members should be able to go about their parliamentary business undisturbed. Assaulting, threatening, or insulting a Member during a proceeding of Parliament, or while the Member is circulating within the Parliamentary Precinct, is a violation of the rights of Parliament. Any form of intimidation of a Member with respect to the Member’s actions during a proceeding in Parliament could amount to contempt.221

Certain matters, most notably bribery, the acceptance of fees and corrupt electoral practices, are dealt with in law.222 Over the years, Members have regularly brought to the attention of the House instances which they believed were attempts to obstruct, impede, interfere, intimidate or molest them, their staffs or individuals who had some business with them or the House. In a technical sense, such actions are considered to be contempts of the House and not breaches of privilege.223 Since these matters relate so closely to the right of the House to the services of its Members, they are often considered to be breaches of privilege.

Speakers have consistently upheld the right of the House to the services of its Members free from intimidation, obstruction and interference. Speaker Lamoureux stated in a 1973 ruling that he had “no hesitation in reaffirming the principle that parliamentary privilege includes the right of a member to discharge his responsibilities as a member of the House free from threats or attempts at intimidation”.224 As Speaker Bosley noted in 1986:

If an Hon. Member is impeded or obstructed in the performance of his or her parliamentary duties through threats, intimidation, bribery attempts or other improper behaviour, such a case would fall within the limits of parliamentary privilege. Should an Hon. Member be able to say that something has happened which prevented him or her from performing functions, that he or she has been threatened, intimidated, or in any way unduly influenced, there would be a case for the Chair to consider.225

In ruling on another question of privilege, Speaker Bosley stated further that the threat or attempt at intimidation cannot be hypothetical, but must be real or have occurred.226

In order to find a prima facie breach of privilege, the Speaker must be satisfied that there is evidence to support the Member’s claim that he or she has been impeded in the performance of his or her parliamentary functions and that the matter is directly related to a proceeding in Parliament.227 In some cases where prima facie privilege has not been found, the rulings have focused on whether or not the parliamentary functions of the Member were directly involved. While frequently noting that Members raising such matters have legitimate grievances, Speakers have consistently concluded that Members have not been prevented from carrying out their parliamentary duties.228 Speaker Jerome observed in a 1978 ruling that society demands much of Members but not all demands strictly impose a parliamentary duty. While every Member has duties as a representative of the electorate, a Member may claim the protection of privilege relating only to his or her parliamentary functions, though the line distinguishing these duties might blur.229

Physical Obstruction, Assault and Molestation

In circumstances where Members claim to be physically obstructed, impeded, interfered with or intimidated in the performance of their parliamentary functions, the Speaker is apt to find that a prima facie breach of privilege has occurred.230

Incidents involving physical obstruction—such as traffic barriers, security cordons and union picket lines either impeding Members’ access to the Parliamentary Precinct or blocking their free movement within the precinct—as well as occurrences of physical assault or molestation have been found to be prima facie cases of privilege. For example, in 1989, Speaker Fraser ruled that a prima facie case of privilege existed when an RCMP roadblock on Parliament Hill, meant to contain demonstrators, prevented Members from accessing the House of Commons.231 In 1999, a number of questions of privilege were raised resulting from picket lines set up by members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada at strategic locations of entry to Parliament Hill and at entrances to specific buildings used by parliamentarians. One Member stated that the strikers had used physical violence and intimidation to stop him from gaining access to his office. On this matter, Speaker Parent ruled immediately that there was a prima facie case of privilege and the matter was referred to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.232 Other related questions of privilege focused on the difficulties some Members had had in gaining access to their offices, thus preventing them from performing their functions and meeting their obligations in a timely fashion. After consideration, Speaker Parent found that the incident constituted a prima facie case of contempt of the House and the matter was also referred to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.233 In 2004, a question of privilege was raised regarding the free movement of Members within the Parliamentary Precinct during a visit by the President of the United States, George W. Bush. A number of Members complained that, in attempting to prevent protestors from gaining entrance to Parliament Hill, police had also denied certain Members access to the Parliamentary Precinct and thus prevented them from carrying out their parliamentary functions. Speaker Milliken found a prima facie case of privilege and the matter was referred to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.234 Similar intances occurred during other state visits.235

Other Examples of Obstruction, Interference and Intimidation

A Member may also be obstructed or interfered with in the performance of his or her parliamentary functions by non-physical means. In ruling on such matters, the Speaker examines the effect the incident or event had on the Member’s ability to fulfill his or her parliamentary responsibilities. If, in the Speaker’s view, the Member was not obstructed in the performance of his or her parliamentary duties and functions, then a prima facie breach of privilege cannot be found.236

It is impossible to codify all incidents which might be interpreted as matters of obstruction, interference, molestation or intimidation and, as such, constitute prima facie cases of privilege. However, some matters found to be prima facie include the damaging of a Member’s reputation, the usurpation of the title of Member of Parliament, the intimidation of Members and their staff and of witnesses before committees, and the provision of misleading information.

The unjust damaging of a Member’s good name might be seen as constituting an obstruction if the Member is prevented from performing his or her parliamentary functions. In 1987, Speaker Fraser stated:

The privileges of a Member are violated by any action which might impede him or her in the fulfilment of his or her duties and functions. It is obvious that the unjust damaging of a reputation could constitute such an impediment. The normal course of a Member who felt himself or herself to be defamed would be the same as that available to any other citizen, recourse to the courts under the laws of defamation with the possibility of damages to substitute for the harm that might be done. However, should the alleged defamation take place on the floor of the House, this recourse is not available.237

There have been infrequent instances of the Speaker finding a prima facie breach of privilege related to damage to a Member’s reputation. Most were due to bulk mailings, being distributed in the Member’s riding. In April 2005, Speaker Milliken ruled that the reputation of Brian Masse (Windsor West) may have been unjustly damaged by a bulk mailing containing inaccurate and misleading information which had been distributed in Mr. Masse’s riding.238 In October 2005, the Speaker ruled that a prima facie breach of privilege had occurred after Denis Coderre (Bourassa) claimed that householders distributed in various Quebec ridings had damaged his reputation.239 In November 2009, the Speaker found two prima facie questions of privilege, raised by Peter Stoffer (Sackville—Eastern Shore) and Irwin Cotler (Mount Royal), related to the Members’ reputations being damaged by bulk mailings sent into their respective ridings by other Members.240 Ultimately, these cases prompted the Board of Internal Economy to limit the use of bulk mailings241 to Members’ own ridings.

Also, in 2005, a prima facie breach of privilege was found with respect to comments made by the Ethics Commissioner to a journalist about Deepak Obhrai (Calgary East) who was the subject of an inquiry under the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons. The Member alleged that the comments had damaged his reputation, particularly since such inquiries were meant to be conducted in private. While hesitant to rule that the conduct of the Ethics Commissioner constituted a prima facie contempt of the House, particularly in the absence of a review and an assessment of the new Conflict of Interest Code, Speaker Milliken ruled the matter to be a prima facie breach of privilege in order to allow the House “to pronounce itself on how it wishes to proceed in this very delicate case”.242

In 2012, a question of privilege was raised concerning cybercampaigns targeting Vic Toews (Minister of Public Safety). Among other issues, Mr. Toews raised concerns about online videos containing threats against him, his family and other Members. On this point, the Speaker ruled that there was a prima facie question of privilege as the videos constituted an attack on the most fundamental privileges of the House. The House immediately referred the matter to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.243

The misrepresentation of someone who is not a sitting Member as a Member of Parliament has been found to constitute a prima facie case of privilege on two occasions. On May 6, 1985, Speaker Bosley ruled that there was a prima facie question of privilege in a case where a newspaper advertisement identified another person as a Member of Parliament rather than the sitting Member. He stated:

It should go without saying that a Member of Parliament needs to perform his functions effectively and that anything tending to cause confusion as to a Member’s identity creates the possibility of an impediment to the fulfilment of that Member’s functions. Any action which impedes or tends to impede a Member in the discharge of his duties is a breach of privilege.244

In 2004, a similar question of privilege was raised concerning a booklet published in connection with a fundraising event and which contained an advertisement identifying a former Member of Parliament as the sitting Member for the riding. The matter was found to be a prima facie breach of the privileges of the House and was referred to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.245

The intimidation by government officials of Members and their staff in carrying out their parliamentary functions has been considered a prima facie breach of privilege. In 1984, Speaker Francis found a prima facie case of privilege involving the intimidation of an employee of a Member. In a ruling given on February 20, 1984, the Speaker stated:

A threat emanating from any government department or public corporation to withhold information or cooperation from a Member of Parliament would undoubtedly hinder that Member in the fulfilment of his or her parliamentary duties and therefore constitute a breach of privilege. By the same token, an offer of favourable treatment on condition that questions are first cleared with the office concerned would also violate privilege in an equally fundamental way … It is therefore the view of the Chair that an action which amounts to a form of intimidation does not need to be directed at the Member in person in order to constitute an offence in terms of privilege.246

Just as prima facie cases of privilege have been found for the intimidation of Members and their staff, the intimidation of a committee witness has also been found to be a prima facie breach of privilege. In 1992, a witness who had testified before a subcommittee was advised by a Crown corporation employee that the issue of her testimony was being referred to the corporation’s legal department. The witness informed a Member, who raised a question of privilege in the House. The matter was found by Speaker Fraser to be prima facie contempt and was referred by the House to the Standing Committee on House Management for consideration.247 In its report to the House on the question of privilege, the Committee reaffirmed the principles of parliamentary privilege and the extension of privilege to witnesses. The report stated:

The protection of witnesses is a fundamental aspect of the privilege that extends to parliamentary proceedings and those persons who participate in them. It is well-established in the Parliament of Canada, as in the British Parliament, that witnesses before committees share the same privileges of freedom of speech as do Members. Witnesses before parliamentary committees are therefore automatically extended the same immunities from civil or criminal proceedings as Members for anything that they say before a committee. The protection of witnesses extends to threats made against them or intimidation with respect to their presentations before any parliamentary committee.248

Misleading a Minister or a Member has also been considered a form of obstruction and, thus, a prima facie breach of privilege. For example, on December 6, 1978, in finding that a prima facie contempt of the House existed, Speaker Jerome ruled that a government official, by deliberately misleading a Minister, had impeded the Member in the performance of his duties and consequently obstructed the House itself.249

Finally, in finding a prima facie case of privilege on March 21, 1978, Speaker Jerome ruled that the electronic surveillance of a Member beyond the Parliamentary Precinct “could be regarded as a form of harassment or obstruction or molestation or intimidation of a Member, all of which phrases have been used in our precedents to support the position that such conduct is a contempt of the House”.250

Intimidation of the Speaker and Other Chair Occupants

As with the intimidation of a Member or witness, the intimidation or attempted intimidation of the Speaker or any other Chair Occupant is viewed very seriously by the House. On three occasions, the House has viewed criticisms of the impartiality of the Chair as attempts at intimidation and, therefore, as privilege matters.251 On December 22, 1976, the House adopted a motion finding that a statement made in a newspaper article about Speaker Jerome was “a gross libel on Mr. Speaker and that the publication of the article was a gross breach of the privileges of the House”.252 On March 23, 1993, Speaker Fraser ruled that a Member’s comments about the impartiality of a Chair Occupant constituted a prima facie case of privilege, noting that an attack against the integrity of an officer of the House was also an attack against the House.253 On March 9, 1998, a Member rose on a question of privilege to claim that quotations attributed to certain Members of the House in a newspaper article constituted an attempt to intimidate the Speaker and collectively the House. The Member was concerned that the comments, attributed by the media to Members about matters which were before the Chair for adjudication and which implied that, if the Speaker ruled a particular way he should be removed from the chair, were attempting to influence his ruling. Speaker Parent ruled that there was a prima facie case of privilege.254

On March 24, 2014, a Member rose on a question of privilege claiming that sanctions imposed by the Russian government on 13 Canadians, including the Speaker of the House and Members of Parliament, were intended to punish, intimidate, and interfere with the functioning of the House of Commons and the ability of Members of Parliament to carry out their duties. The Speaker considered the matter closed when the House adopted a resolution denouncing the sanctions.255

Constituency-Related or Politically Related Instances

In instances where Members have claimed that they have been obstructed or harassed, not directly in their parliamentary roles, but while being involved in matters of a political or constituency-related nature, Speakers have consistently ruled that this does not constitute a prima facie case of privilege. On July 15, 1980, Speaker Sauvé stated:

While I am only too aware of the multiple responsibilities, duties, and also the work the member has to do relating to his constituency, as Speaker I am required to consider only those matters which affect the member’s parliamentary work. That is to say, whatever duty a member has to his constituents, before a valid question of privilege arises in respect of any alleged interference, such interference must relate to the member’s parliamentary duties. In other words, just as a member is protected from anything he does while taking part in a proceeding in Parliament, so too must interference relate to the member’s role in the context of parliamentary work.256

This view was further reinforced in a ruling given on May 15, 1985 by Speaker Bosley. Douglas Frith (Sudbury) had risen on a question of privilege claiming that his ability to serve his constituents was being infringed or impeded by a departmental directive restricting the release of information about a government program. In ruling that, while the Member did have a complaint, there was no prima facie question of privilege, Speaker Bosley noted “the purpose of parliamentary privilege is to protect our speech in the House, the institution itself, and the institution and Members from threats, obstructions and intimidation in the exercise of our duties”.257

The importance of the relationship of privilege to parliamentary functions was reaffirmed by Speaker Milliken in a ruling delivered on June 5, 2005. A question of privilege had been raised respecting the inability of a number of Members to communicate with their constituents because certain individuals and organizations opposed to the same-sex marriage legislation before the House were inundating the offices of these Members with computer-generated faxes and emails. Although he sympathized with the Members, agreeing that the large number of faxes and emails had interfered with the smooth functioning and orderly routine of their offices, the Speaker concluded nonetheless that he was unable to find that they were prevented from performing their parliamentary duties.258

Finally, Speaker Fraser confirmed in a ruling given on November 17, 1987 that parliamentary privilege does not extend to a Member’s staff working on constituency or political activities on behalf of that Member.259