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A Little Known Aspect of Parliamentary Immunity
Maurice Champagne

At the time this article was written Maurice Champagne worked for the Legislative Library of the Quebec National Assembly.

To carry out their duties federal and provincial legislators enjoy a number of rights and immunities known as "privileges". In some legislatures these are spelled out in legislation or standing orders while in others they are left to custom. Perhaps the best known parliamentary privilege is immunity from prosecution for anything a member says in the House. Related to this, but less well known, even among parliamentarians, is that a member cannot be expelled from a private club or union for statements or actions in the course of duties in the House. An example of this privilege came to light recently in Quebec.

In January 1983, the Syndicat des travailleurs de l'enseignement de la Haute-Yamaska decided to expel from its ranks Jacques Beauséjour, the Parti québécois member for Iberville. One of the reasons given by the head of the Union for Mr. Beauséjour's expulsion was that he had voted repeatedly in support of Bills 62, 70 and 105 relating to wage cutbacks in the public sector.1 However, according to a ruling of the Court of King's Bench dating back to June 21, 1917, an organization does not have the right to expel from its ranks a member on account of opinions expressed by him in the Assembly. The case, outlined below, illustrates this little known aspect of parliamentary privilege.

On January 13, 1916, during the debate on the Speech from the Throne, Armand Lavergne, a Nationalist member of the Quebec Legislative Assembly for Montmagny, spoke out passionately in the Assembly against the participation of French Canadians in the First World War.2 In defending his stand, Lavergne even went so far as to say that he was prepared to set aside his parliamentary immunity and the government could arrest him for high treason if they wanted to.3

A few days later the members of the Club de la garison de Québec lodged a verbal complaint with their secretary, asking for Lavergne's expulsion from the club. On February 25, a written complaint signed by sixteen club members was forwarded to the committee and a special meeting of all club members was convened for March 13. The majority of club members supported the following resolution: "That the committee be instructed to request Mr. Lavergne to resign as a member of the club, and in default of his resigning within ten days from such request, the committee do expel him from the club.4

Lavergne took his case to court on January 12, 1917. He sought to have annulled the resolution which had ordered his expulsion. He also sought from the club, a total of $999 in damages.

Judge Roy ruled that the resolution adopted by the club was illegal, ultra vires, and in violation of club rules and regulations and that, consequently, it must be quashed and reversed. The court issued a permanent injunction in this case and ordered the defendant to pay the plaintiff up to a maximum of $100 in damages. The club appealed the court's ruling and on June 21, 1917, the appeal was heard in the Court of King's Bench.

The judgment of the lower court was upheld. Four of the five judges of the appeal court arrived at two conclusions. one of which is of special interest to us and concerns the privileges of parliamentarians: "A resolution, adopted by a social club with a view to expelling one of its members by reason of something he said in the exercise of his duties as a member of the Legislative Assembly, constitutes a violation of the parliamentary privilege of freedom of speech and, as such, is null and void".5

Chief Justice Sir Horace Archambeault gave the following judgement:

"On the first point, the respondent, in presenting the facts of his case, quotes section 133 of the Revised Statutes (Legislature Act) which stipulates that no member of the Legislative Assembly shall be liable to any action, arrest or imprisonment by reason of anything said by him before such House. The privilege of freedom of speech enjoyed by a Member of Parliament is not limited to the examples mentioned in this section. Moreover, no legislation was needed in order to establish this principle. The existence of this privilege is essential to every free legislature. Not only must a member of Parliament not be liable to any action or arrest, much less imprisonment, he must not be molested in any way by anyone outside of Parliament. Only Parliament has the right to censure one of its members for his contemptible conduct or disparaging or censurable remarks. The King himself could not intervene on the pretext that a member has made some seditious comments or proposed some measure which smacks of treason. The appellant maintains that only courts of justice are prohibited from censuring a member of Parliament and that this principle does not apply to a club wishing to expel one of its members for some derogatory remarks he made within the confines of Parliament. This claim is totally unfounded. The privilege of freedom of speech is universally applicable.

Our Canadian author on parliamentary procedure, Sir John Bourinot, is a proponent of the same philosophy. He has the following to say about the privilege of freedom of speech (Parliamentary Procedure, pp. 47 and 48): "Among the most important privileges of the members of a legislature is the enjoyment of freedom of speech in debate, a privilege long recognized as essential to proper discussion and confirmed as part of the law of the land in Great Britain and all her dependencies. This freedom of speech, of debate and proceeding may not be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of parliament. This freedom of speech was originally intended as a protection against the power of the Crown, but naturally was extended to protect members against all attacks from whatsoever source."

I can, without any hesitation whatsoever, state that the resolution adopted by the club is a violation of the parliamentary privilege of freedom of speech. A Member of Parliament must in no way be molested or prevented from exercising his right to speak openly and freely on any subject that may be debated in Parliament. A member must be able to exercise this privilege without fear or apprehension, since, as the authors of the various works on parliamentary procedure indicate, freedom of speech is an essential part of the constitution which governs us...6

Notes

1. La Presse, 21 January. 1983.

2. L'Événement, 14 January, 1916.

3.Le Soleil, 14 January, 1916.

4.Barreau de la province de Québec, Les rapports judiciaires de Québec. Cour supérieur, Montréal, Eug. Globensky & Cie, 1917, p. 351.

5. Barreau de la province de Québec, Les rapports judiciaires de Québec, Cour du banc du roi (en appel). Montréal, Eug. Globensky & Cie, 1918, p. 37.

6. lbid, pp. 3841 (Refers to 1879 edition of Erskine May).


Canadian Parliamentary Review Cover
Vol 6 no 4
1983






Last Updated: 2019-11-29