Parliamentary Privilege – Why MPs can’t be sued

Parliamentary Privilege – Why MPs can’t be sued

The 38 Oxley Road Saga Continues

On Monday, 3rd July 2017, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong responded directly to his siblings’ allegations of abuse of his power by issuing a ministerial statement in Parliament and responded directly to questions from Members of Parliament.

Notably, the Prime Minister decided to ‘lift the party whip’ and allow members of his party to debate the issue freely, prompting the speaker for the House, Halimah Yacob, to call on Members of Parliament in the lead-up to the debate to examine the issues around 38 Oxley Road thoroughly.

However, Mr Lee Hsien Yang stated via his Facebook page on Thursday, 29th June that had “no confidence” that a “fair, transparent or complete account of events” would be told in Parliament. Instead, in Mr Lee’s view, only his brother’s side of the story would air, “with no promise of truthfulness due to parliamentary privilege.”

In response, Lee Hsien Loong made clear on Monday, 3rd July that he would release all information provided during the parliamentary debate as a separate statement outside of Parliament that would not be covered by parliamentary privilege.

So, what is Parliamentary Privilege?

Parliamentary privilege refers to the legal immunity that prevents Members of Parliament from being prosecuted or sued for statements made in Parliament or as part of their parliamentary duties.

This immunity allows Members of Parliament to speak freely on significant issues without fearing legal consequences, for example, being sued for defamation. It is important to remember that this immunity from civil or criminal action by default only protects what is said and done in Parliament.

While the system of parliamentary privilege is inherited from the traditions of the United Kingdom, the Singapore’s parliamentary privilege derives from Article 63 of the Singapore Constitution, which allows Parliament to determine is own privileges, immunities, and powers. These are set out in law in the Parliament (Privileges, Immunities and Powers) Act.

What actions or words are covered by parliamentary privilege?

According to the Act, Parliament has absolute freedom of speech, debate and proceedings. This means that Members of Parliament are not liable to be impeached or questioned in any court, the commission of inquiry, tribunal or any other place out of Parliament for what they say in Parliament. The Act also extends protection to authorised reports, papers and journals relating to parliamentary proceedings.

What is the Singapore Courts take on this matter?

The Singapore Courts had also held that certain written representations by members of the public, such as those concerning a Bill before a Select Committee when the member of the public was invited to write to Parliament, are also protected by parliamentary privilege.

Are there limits to parliamentary privilege?

Of course, there are still limits to what a Member of Parliament can do or say and still be covered by parliamentary privilege. This is because Parliament has the power to investigate its Members, and if they are found to have abused their privilege, to punish them.

Alleged breaches of parliamentary privilege are investigated by Committee of Privileges, which is made up of eight Members of Parliament. As of 2017, these include:

  • the current Speaker of Parliament, Mdm Halimah Yacob;
  • Aljunied GRC MP, Mr Chen Show Mao;
  • Leader of the House and Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Ms Grace Fu Hai Yen;
  • Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Law, Ms Indranee Rajah;
  • Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and
  • Mayor, South East CDC, Dr Mohamad Maliki Bin Osman;
  • Marine Parade GRC MP, Mr Seah Kian Peng;
  • Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law, Mr K Shanmugam, and
  • Marine Parade GRC MP, Mr Edwin Tong Chun Fai.

What happens when parliamentary privilege is breached?

Although such cases are rare, breach of parliamentary privilege by a Singapore Member of Parliament can lead to sanctions such as reprimands, fines, suspension, or even imprisonment.

For example, in 1986, Workers’ Party Member of Parliament, JB Jeyaretnam was found guilty of abuse of parliamentary privilege and contempt of the Committee of Privileges and was fined S$26,000 by the Committee.

The charge of abuse of parliamentary privilege, for which Jeyaretnam was fined $1000, related to allegations of executive interference in the judiciary that Jeyaretnam had made in Parliament.

Specifically, Jeyaretnam was accused of abusing his privilege by making unsubstantiated allegations of interference in the Judiciary; maligning the Judiciary by insinuating that they did not exercise their duties in accordance with their oath of office; and making statements calculated to undermine confidence in the independence, impartiality and integrity of the courts.

The Committee considered that Jeyaretnam had imporoperly suggested that that the Attorney General and Chief Justice were beholden to the Government and that via the Attorney General, the Government had interfered in the independence of the courts. In particular, Jeyaretnam referred to the transfer of District Judge Michael Khoo, who had acquitted Jeyaretnam and the Chairman of the Worker’s Party in a criminal case, to the Attorney General’s Chambers.

Jeyaretnam was considered to have suggested that the prosecution against him and the subsequent transfer of Michael Khoo were politically-motivated and was intended effectively to punish Mr. Khoo by removing his status as a judge, so that Jeyaretnam’s case could be retried by a different judge who would have convicted him. Jeyaretnam also referred to other instances in which District Judges had been transferred and suggested that District Judges were unable to carry out their responsibilities due to fear of displeasing the Government or the Attorney-General.

The charge of contempt, for which Jeyaretnam was fined $25,000, related to a number of newsletters, which JB Jeyaretnam published to his constituents and claimed to be an accurate report of the Committee’s proceedings. The Committee considered that Jeyaretnam’s newsletters contained distortions and misrepresentations that were derogatory towards the Committee and were calculated to lower its dignity and authority by suggesting that it was not impartial.

Jeyaretnam denied the charges and the matter went to Singapore’s Court of Appeal, which decided in 1988 to uphold the Committee’s ruling on the ground that Singapore’s Parliament was empowered by the Constitution firstly to decide on what was covered by parliamentary privilege and to punish individuals if the Committee held that such individuals had abused their privilege or were in contempt of the Committee or Parliament. Therefore, it was up to the Committee and not the Courts to decide whether Jeyaretnam was covered by parliamentary privilege.

What happens now?

By choosing to release a statement not covered by parliamentary privilege, Prime Minister Lee has taken a bold step to rebuff his critics as he is, in effect, waiving his right not to be sued for everything he stated in Parliament on Monday.

How we can help

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We firmly believe that everyone should understand the laws that govern them in Singapore. Should you be in a position where you may need our assistance, please do not hesitate and contact us or call us at +65 6298 2537 so that we can advise you on your matter.

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