The doctrine of Parliamentary privilege has no place in a modern democratic society

The doctrine of Parliamentary privilege has no place in a modern democratic society

The debate on whether parliamentary privilege augurs well with the prospects of development in the modern society is an issue marred with controversy to this day. With the advancements that have been witnessed in the political and social organization in the modern society, it is virtually possible to live with any system of government just as it is to do away with it. This implies that the relevance of the doctrine of parliamentary privilege on modern society can be assessed from different angles; affirmative or otherwise. To understand the magnitude of the doctrine in the modern political establishment, parliamentary privilege can be illustrated to be synonymous with parliamentary system. Even if debate for its review and in extreme debates its abolition persist, it is an issue that cannot be abandoned just in the heat of the arguments. The following discourse explores the possibilities of abandoning the doctrine based on some of its principles, in light of their appropriateness in a modern democracy.

Protection of the parliament against any form of interference while handling legislative obligations is by far a genuine reason for the existence of such freedom as accorded to parliamentarians. However, abuse of the privileges appears to be inseparable from the process of their enjoyment. Enid (174) identifies parliamentary privilege violation as a major concern that drew the attention of the parliament a long time ago. The purpose of the privilege accorded to parliament rests within the context of legislative duties but other contingent intricacies of interpretation have always made efforts futile to identify balance the genuine purposes. Parliament has failed to implement the appropriate balance and checks that would facilitate the relevant procedures to be applied in determining parliamentary privilege usage as genuine or not. Democratic institutions need such control as would be necessary for their independence on one hand while their abuse is clearly identified and dealt with amicably on the other hand.

The basic rule that parliamentary privilege is intended to achieve is resolve issues bearing a matter that is of public interest and importance. Contrary to this, parliamentarians have applied the relevant privileges to suit their own personal interests at the expanse of that of the public. There are reports that a number of parliamentarians in the UK have been implicated in the unprecedented financial fraud. By carrying out such economic crimes, there is every indication that the personal interests of these leaders fell in front of any national obligation to protect the will of the people. It has occurred in the past that misuse of the privilege can easily be misinterpreted and manipulated to suit the interests of a few people. Bearing in mind that the parliamentarians are a representative group for the entire population, that would translate to taking public interest as ransom for individual wellbeing.

Laudable progress of dealing with the problem of parliamentary privilege can be observed in Malta, a commonwealth country which struggled with the legal system up to the Supreme Court to have the doctrine dropped from the national doctrines governing parliament. With the correct cooperation from all the sectors of the democracy, it is possible to launch a spirited and fruitful fight against anti-democracy doctrines such as parliamentary privilege as observed in Malta.

Modern democratic principles appear to be contradicted by the general usage and interpretation of parliamentary privileges, with regard to accountability and transparency. The author finds it ironical that despite demanding and enforceable calls for accountability and transparency by critics of the government, the parliament and the opposition seem to walk unscathed. Privileges enjoyed by the members of parliament accord a rare immunity to parliamentarians to state what they want devoid of a truth requirement so long as they do that inside the precincts of parliament. In the modern democracy, it is a requirement that every individual in any public office applies responsibility and accountability for what they state directly or imply to state for the sake of democratic process to thrive. It therefore appears that a doctrine favouring the exact opposite would be ill advised and ought to be reserved for less serious activities that do not involve such as those of the highest decision making institution of a people’s governance system.

By allowing parliament to offer protection to a few people in isolation translates into a form of discrimination that democracy strongly dejects. It appears that such a privilege only exists to promote the notion of a selected few being above the law, a complete contrast of democratic foundations. It therefore follows that the only way to avoid futility in principles of modern governance, contradicting applications ought to be replaced with those that keep with the pace of transformations in the modern society. According to Evans (117), it is unacceptable for parliament to appear to be creating a public sphere that is immune to the laws that it sets, as if they do not belong to the same society. The author however remains optimistic that there are solutions to this problem if the society is willing to rectify.

In the context of origins of parliamentary privileges, there is a general picture of need to protect the law makers from an absolute form of leadership that was largely outside the parliamentary control. By entrenching the protection in the practices of the highest law making institution of the state, it became easier for criticism and correction as interventions of checks and balances of governance. Basing the argument on the premise that modern democracy has largely done away with absolutism in governance, leadership format therefore renders parliamentary privilege vestigial by virtual of being irrelevant. Old and irrelevant practices usually get caught up in the development of the society and they have no further application but being shelved. Modern democracy has offered the correct checks and balances for the various departments of the government, besides making the government a completely representative entity.

The doctrine of Parliamentary privilege has no replacement in a modern democratic society

Parliamentary issues must be left to parliament to handle, since being the law forming arm of government would appear ridiculous for other any other arm to enforce 5the same law to disorient parliament from its duties. It must be noted that some institutions of the government such as the armed forces have a separate disciplinary system from that of the general public; why not should parliament not have such? Critics of such doctrines should offer an alternative to parliamentary privilege which could be difficult to match with respect to the nature of their duties. It is therefore a matter of fact that if the society needs to strengthen the institution of parliament, credible leadership should be involved into the system by the electorate.

Much of the debate against parliamentary privilege seems unfair on a good doctrine being soiled by the fear of a gluttonous few. If the society was to develop a strong governance system, such issues must be faced head on by aligning its leadership, instead of apportioning blame to existing traditions that have worked in the past. Eliminating the doctrine and its application in the modern parliamentary practice would therefore amount to interference and contempt of the institution that needs extra cooperation from all sectors of the society. This is guided by the premise that the human society has found succour in the evolution of governance structure, particularly the parliamentary system that has principle foundations well regulated by its own wisdom.

In Enid (180), appropriate mechanisms should be put in place to punish every parliamentarian who violates the doctrine of parliamentary privilege. The author reckons that the usage of appropriate mechanisms and processes such as penal powers of the parliament should be enough to check the balance of the privileges and avoid their abuse. The joint committee set in the UK to analyse the status of parliamentary privilege and its role in the modern UK found out that the disciplinary responsibility of the Houses could handle the violation of the privileges as accorded to parliament. By recommending that the jurisdiction of determining the gravity of violation of privileges by members of parliament should be shared among the court system and parliamentary discipline and penal system, the committee was aware of the implications of possible abolition of the doctrine. It is therefore clear that just like any other offense in the society, violation of parliamentary privilege should be treated as a parliamentary offense attracting certain penalties.

As observed earlier in Evan (117), the rule of law and parliamentary privileges are reconcilable. Commonwealth countries parliamentary practices are by far a replica of the UK scenario, which makes the authors’ study of Canada applicable. The author translates criticism of reasonableness of parliamentary privilege as uniformed as of a Diceyan nature which is not enough to draw conclusions regarding applicability in the modern age. It is clear that the original intent of establishment of the doctrine and the subsequent entrenchment in standard practices ought to attract sobriety and fairness. Abolition of the practice due to the apparent lack of equality across the society must be translated with a keen ascription involving several other principles. The importance of parliamentary proceedings to the society and the protection that ought to be accorded to the institution should call for any possible means within the reach of the society to carry out the objective.


Modern democracies should consider reviewing the doctrine of parliamentary privilege, to avert the debate that seems too sensitive to be left at the stage it is. While proponents of abolition of the doctrine seem to have the numbers on their side, opponents might have a point to prove and protect the institution of the legislature. Democracy is a conglomeration of new and old practices that should strike a balance between reforms and conservative ideologies, for the sake of the good of the society.

Works Cited

Enid, Campbell, “Adjudication of Parliamentary Offences.” University of Queensland Law Journal, 22.2(2003):173-187

Evan, Fox-decent, “Parliamentary Privilege and the Rule of Law.” Canadian Journal of Administrative Law and Practice,” 20.3(2007):117-140