Molestation of or interference with witnesses

15.21Any conduct calculated to deter prospective witnesses from giving evidence before either House or a committee is a contempt.

It is also a contempt to molest any persons attending either House as witnesses, during their attendance in such House or committee. Assaults upon witnesses in the precincts of the House1 and the use of threatening or abusive language within the precincts2 have been proceeded against.

On the same principle, molestation of or threats against those who have previously given evidence before either House or a committee will be treated by the House concerned as a contempt (see para 15.2 ). Such actions have included assault or a threat of assault on witnesses,3 insulting or abusive behaviour,4 misuse (by a gaoler)5 or censure, punishment or dismissal by an employer.6

In consequence of a case in the latter category, the Witnesses (Public Inquiries) Protection Act 1892 was passed; under its provisions, persons who punish, damnify, or injure witnesses before committees of either House of Parliament on account of their evidence, unless such evidence was given in bad faith, are liable on conviction to be fined or imprisoned and ordered to pay the costs of the prosecution, as well as a sum by way of compensation to the injured persons (see para 13.14 ).

Committees have taken evidence from witnesses without divulging their names where there was reason to apprehend that private injury or vengeance might result from publication, or when disclosure might lead to other undesirable consequences.7

Footnotes

  1. 1. LJ (1696–1701) 144; CJ (1718–21) 290; ibid (1826–28) 345, 351 and Parl Deb (1827) 16, c 1305 and ibid 17, c 7.
  2. 2. CJ (1648–51) 413; ibid (1667–87) 54; ibid (1818–19) 223 and Parl Deb (1819) 39, cc 978, 986. Cf Home Affairs Committee, First Special Report, HC 107 (1993–94).
  3. 3. CJ (1667–87) 678; ibid (1688–93) 579; ibid (1708–11) 498, 503, 535; ibid (1818–19) 223.
  4. 4. CJ (1714–18) 371.
  5. 5. CJ (1688–93) 514, 523, 534; ibid (1727–32) 247.
  6. 6. CJ (1732–37) 146; ibid (1892) 129, 157, 166; Parl Deb (1892) 3, cc 595, 698, 883, and Special Report of the Select Committee on Railway Servants (Hours of Labour), HC 125 (1892); Select Committee on Nationalised Industries, Second Special Report (HC 237 (1974–75)); Committee of Privileges, Third Report (HC 274 (1975–76)) where an individual was not considered to have been adversely affected by their employer for having been a witness in Parliament; and Committee on Standards and Privileges, Fifth Report HC 447 (2003–04) where disciplinary action against a member of a Board of a Non-Departmental Public Body on account of evidence given by them to a select committee was judged a contempt. The Government accepted the report in its entirety and the Lord Chancellor ‘unreservedly apologised’.
  7. 7. See eg Committees on Home Work, HC 246 (1908) p xxii; Debtors (Imprisonment), HC 344 (1908) p viii; Violence in Marriage, HC 553-II (1974–75) pp 16–31. See also Environment Committee HC 42-I (1996–97) Annex III: names of tenants visited and location of estate not published at estate management's request; Justice Committee took evidence in private from former prisoners, and did not publish their full names: Justice Committee, Oral evidence: Prisons: planning and policies, HC 309, 24 November 2014; the Joint Committee on Human Rights has taken evidence in private, and published material using assumed names: Joint Committee on Human Rights, Uncorrected oral evidence: Mental Health and Deaths in Prison, HC 893, 1 March 2017.