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R v Chaytor, Morley, Devine and Hanningfield

It was always obvious that Parliamentary privilege doesn’t prevent the trial of MPs accused of expenses fraud – and unsurprisingly, the Supreme Court has ruled that it doesn’t. There’s no written judgment yet, but I’ll link to it when it’s available.

In the meantime, you might be interested in the Court of Appeal judgment given in July. Here’s what the Lord Chief Justice, Master of the Rolls and President of the Queen’s bench division concluded:

If we may respectfully say so, we are not in the least surprised that no attempt has been made by the Speaker or Lord Speaker to seek to intervene in these proceedings, nor even to draw the attention of the court to any potential difficulty in the context of parliamentary privilege, nor even to ask the court to reflect on the possibility that parliamentary privilege may be engaged.

It can confidently be stated that parliamentary privilege or immunity from criminal prosecution has never ever attached to ordinary criminal activities by members of Parliament. With the necessary exception in relation to the exercise of freedom of speech, it is difficult to envisage circumstances in which the performance of the core responsibilities of a member of Parliament might require or permit him or her to commit crime, or in which the commission of crime could form part of the proceedings in the House for the purposes of article 9 of the Bill of Rights. Equally we cannot discern from principle or authority that privilege or immunity in relation to such conduct may arise merely because the allegations are based on activities which have taken place “within the walls” of Parliament.

The stark reality is that the defendants are alleged to have taken advantage of the allowances scheme designed to enable them to perform their important public duties as members of Parliament to commit crimes of dishonesty to which parliamentary immunity or privilege does not, has never, and, we believe, never would attach. If the allegations are proved, and we emphasise, if they are proved, then those against whom they are proved will have committed ordinary crimes. Even stretching language to its limits we are unable to envisage how dishonest claims by members of Parliament for their expenses or allowances begin to involve the legislative or core functions of the relevant House, or the proper performance of their important public duties. In our judgment no question of privilege arises, and the ordinary process of the criminal justice system should take its normal course, unaffected by any groundless anxiety that they might constitute an infringement of the principles of parliamentary privilege.

I expect Lord Phillips and his colleagues to draw the same clear conclusion. This ruling isn’t just unsurprising in political terms, as Iain Dale suggests. It was entirely predictable in legal terms, too. The Justices won’t have had to trouble themselves with the risks of public outrage at their ruling.

I hope this will put an end to the exorbitant claims that have been made about the scope of Parliamentary privilege since the Damian Green affair.

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