No Parliamentary Immunity for Vandalism

News: 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.

Background:

  • 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.

Details:

  • The legislators who indulge in vandalism and general mayhem cannot claim parliamentary privilege and immunity from criminal prosecution.
  • Lawmakers possess privileges that are essential for exercising public functions.
  • Vandalism and destruction inside the House are not essential for exercising legislative function.
  • Vandalism on the Assembly floor could not be equated with the right to protest by Opposition legislators.
  • No member of an elected legislature can claim either a privilege or immunity to stand above the sanctions of the criminal law (Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act, 1984), which applies equally to all citizens.
  • Destruction of public property could not be equated with the exercise of freedom of speech.
  • Legislators should act within the parameters of the public trust imposed on them to do their duty.
  • They had taken office swearing true allegiance to the Constitution. They had to uphold the sovereignty and integrity of India and had to perform the duty imposed on them by the people who elected them.

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”.
  • Article 105 of the Constitution expressly mentions two privileges, that is, freedom of speech in Parliament and right of publication of its proceedings.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.