Legal proceedings against witnesses

38.61The House of Commons resolved in 1818 ‘That all witnesses examined before this House, or any committee thereof, are entitled to the protection of this House in respect of anything that may be said by them in their evidence’.1 Both Houses may treat the bringing of legal proceedings against any person on account of any evidence which they may have given in the course of any proceedings in the House or before one of its committees as a contempt. Both Houses have taken action against those who brought or as agents assisted in the bringing of actions for slander in respect of evidence given before either House or a committee.2 The courts have refused to entertain such actions based on statements made in evidence before a committee.3

Footnotes

  1. 1. CJ (1693–97) 591, 613; ibid (1945) 672, 680, 696 and Parl Deb (1845) 81, c 1436. Also see LJ (1845) 690, 712, 729 and Parl Deb (1845) 82, cc 431, 494.
  2. 2. LJ (1845) 690, 712, 729 and Parl Deb (1845) 82, cc 431, 494; CJ (1693–97) 591, 613; ibid (1845) 672, 680, 696 and Parl Deb (1845) 81, c 1436.
  3. 3. Goffin v Donnelly (1881) 6 QBD 307, 50 LJ (QB) 303 was an action for slander in respect of evidence given to a select committee by a witness. Field J observed:
    ‘it may be a hardship upon individuals that statements of a defamatory nature may be made concerning them [before a select committee] but the interest of the individual is subordinated by the law to a higher interest, viz that of public justice, to the administration of which it is necessary that witnesses should be free to give their evidence without fear of consequences.’
    He went on to rebut the contention that there was a difference in this respect between evidence in court and evidence given to the Commons (though without making any reference to article IX of the Bill of Rights).