Contempts

15.2Generally speaking, any act or omission which obstructs or impedes either House of Parliament in the performance of its functions, or which obstructs or impedes any Member or officer of such House in the discharge of their duty, or which has a tendency, directly or indirectly, to produce such results, may be treated as a contempt even though there is no precedent of the offence.1 It is therefore impossible to list every act which might be considered to amount to a contempt, as Parliamentary privilege is a ‘living concept’.2

Although certain broad principles may be deduced from a review of the kinds of misconduct which in the past either House has punished as a contempt, it should be borne in mind that in 1978 the House of Commons resolved to exercise its penal jurisdiction as sparingly as possible, and only when satisfied that it was essential to do so (see para 15.32 ). Thus many acts which might be considered to be contempts are either overlooked by the House or resolved informally. For example, in 2010 the Committee on Standards and Privileges concluded that a firm of solicitors was in contempt of the House when it threatened a Member with legal proceedings if he were to repeat in Parliament statements he had made outside. In the light of the apology given to the House and the Member, the Committee made no recommendation for further action.3

Footnotes

  1. See Report of the Select Committee on the Official Secrets Acts, HC 101 (1938–39) p xii.
  2. See Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, Report of Session 2013–14, Parliamentary Privilege, HL 30, HC 100, para 13.
  3. See Committee on Standards and Privileges, Ninth Report of Session 2009–10, Privilege: John Hemming and Withers LLP, HC 373. No action was taken against Sussex Police for action which might have been a contempt, following an apology; see Committee of Privileges, First Report of the Session 2014–15, Actions of Sussex Police: Final Report, HC 588.