PARLIAMENT of CANADA
House of Commons Procedure and Practice
Edited by Robert Marleau and Camille Montpetit
2000 EditionMore information …
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3. Privileges and Immunities

Privilege is that which sets hon. members apart from other citizens giving them rights which the public do not possess… In my view, parliamentary privilege does not go much beyond the right of free speech in the House of Commons and the right of a member to discharge his duties in the House as a member of the House of Commons.

Speaker Lucien Lamoureux
(Debates, April 29, 1971, p.5338)

T

he practices and precedents of the House of Commons of Canada regarding parliamentary privilege stretch far back into colonial times. At an early stage, the young assemblies of the colonies, modelling themselves on Westminster, claimed the privileges of the British House, though without statutory authority. At Confederation, the privileges of the British House were transferred in the Constitution Act, 1867 [1]  to the Canadian Parliament, and for many years the Canadian House continued to look to the experience of the British House for guidance in matters of parliamentary privilege. [2] 

The origins of the privileges enjoyed by the House of Commons in the United Kingdom were a product of a direct and real threat from the Crown and the House of Lords. As the threat subsided, the thrust of the history of privilege has been towards defining those rights and immunities in their narrowest sense, reflecting the reality that all privileges enjoyed by the House and its Members ultimately derive from the electorate. Fortunately, the privileges of the Canadian House of Commons were inherited without the need to overcome physical threats and challenges. They enable the institution of Parliament to flourish and individual Members to fulfil the functions for which they were elected.

In modern parlance, the term “privilege” usually conveys the idea of a “privileged class”, with a person or group granted special rights or immunities beyond the common advantages of others. [3]  This is not, however, the meaning of privilege in the parliamentary context. “Parliamentary privilege” refers more appropriately to the rights and immunities that are deemed necessary for the House of Commons, as an institution, and its Members, as representatives of the electorate, to fulfil their functions. It also refers to the powers possessed by the House to protect itself, its Members, and its procedures from undue interference, so that it can effectively carry out its principal functions which are to inquire, to debate, and to legislate. [4]  In that sense, parliamentary privilege can be viewed as special advantages which Parliament and its Members need to function unimpeded.

This chapter will briefly summarize the evolution of privilege in the United Kingdom and in Canada, discuss the rights and immunities of the House and its Members, and describe the procedures by which matters of privilege are raised and dealt with in the Canadian House. For an in-depth treatment of the subject, the reader is referred to two principal sources. The first is Erskine May’s Treatise on The Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament[5]  which lays out the practice and precedents of the British House of Commons. The second is Parliamentary Privilege in Canada by Joseph Maingot, [6]  which focusses on the history and workings of privilege in Canada.


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