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 Versus Contempt

Any disregard of or attack on the rights, powers and immunities of the House and its Members, either by an outside person or body, or by a Member of the House, is referred to as a “breach of privilege” and is punishable by the House. [87]  There are, however, other affronts against the dignity and authority of Parliament which may not fall within one of the specifically defined privileges. Thus, the House also claims the right to punish, as a contempt, any action which, though not a breach of a specific privilege, tends to obstruct or impede the House in the performance of its functions; obstructs or impedes any Member or Officer of the House in the discharge of their duties; or is an offence against the authority or dignity of the House, such as disobedience of its legitimate commands or libels upon itself, its Members, or its Officers. [88]  “The rationale of the power to punish contempts, whether contempt of court or contempt of the Houses, is that the courts and the two Houses should be able to protect themselves from acts which directly or indirectly impede them in the performance of their functions.” [89]  In that sense, all breaches of privilege are contempts of the House, but not all contempts are necessarily breaches of privilege.

Contempts, as opposed to “privileges”, cannot be enumerated or categorized. As Speaker Sauvé explained in a 1980 ruling, “ … while our privileges are defined, contempt of the House has no limits. When new ways are found to interfere with our proceedings, so too will the House, in appropriate cases, be able to find that a contempt of the House has occurred.” [90] 

Just as it is not possible to categorize or to delineate what may fall under the definition of contempt, it is not even possible to categorize the “severity” of contempt. Contempts may vary greatly in their gravity; matters ranging from minor breaches of decorum to grave attacks against the authority of Parliament may be considered as contempts. [91] 

By far, most of the cases of privilege in the Canadian House relate to matters of contempt challenging the perceived authority and dignity of Parliament and its Members. [92]  Other cases have involved charges made between Members [93]  or media allegations concerning Members. [94]  The premature disclosure of committee reports and proceedings has frequently been raised as a matter of privilege. [95]  However, in those instances where no specific individual has been identified, the matter has not been pursued even though it might appear to involve contempt. [96] 

The reluctance to invoke the House’s authority to reprimand, admonish or imprison anyone found to have trampled its dignity or authority and that of its Members appears to have become a near constant feature of the Canadian approach to privilege. Though the power of the House to imprison remains, it is difficult to foresee circumstances arising that would oblige the House to invoke it. [97]  Members have proven themselves to be fairly thick-skinned when it comes to criticism, even when it appears hard and unfair. They seem willing to endure such treatment from the press and other media rather than raise a potential conflict between the authority of the House and the freedom of the press. [98]  There is, however, no doubt that the Canadian House of Commons remains capable of protecting itself from senseless abuse should the occasion ever arise.

In only a very few cases in Canadian practice has the House, or a procedure committee report, recommended a punishment. A 1976 committee report did chastise a former Member (Auguste Choquette) who claimed that many parliamentarians had obtained undue financial considerations. After the former Member maintained his allegation under questioning, the committee concluded that his attitude was intemperate and irresponsible, but recommended no further consideration be given to the matter. [99]  In the 1987 Parry case, the Committee also did not recommend punishment [100]  and the Member’s apology to the House put an end to the matter. In the 1996 Jacob case, the Committee noted that while the Member’s actions were ill advised, they did not amount to contempt or a breach of parliamentary privilege. [101]  This was also true in the 1998 case concerning the integrity of the House and the Speaker, following comments that were made on the Speaker’s ruling on displaying the flag in the House. In its report, the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs found that the statements attributed to the Members quoted in the Ottawa Sun newspaper did not bring into question the integrity of the House or the Speaker. [102] 


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