Chapter 2 - Parliamentary Privilege: immunities and powers of the Senate

Minor immunities

There are three minor immunities of members of the Houses of the Parliament and of witnesses and parliamentary officers. One of these is of virtually no significance, and the other two seldom arise. These are:

  •   immunity from arrest in civil causes
  •   exemption from service as a juror
  •   exemption from compulsory attendance in a court or tribunal.

The immunity from arrest in a civil cause is now of little significance. The potential for a person to be arrested and imprisoned by a civil, as distinct from a criminal, process is now extremely small, due to changes in the law and the narrow compass which the courts have given to purely civil causes by interpretation. The immunity extends to witnesses required to attend on parliamentary committees and to officers required to attend on the Houses or their committees.

In some countries the immunity extends to criminal matters, and a member may not be arrested or prosecuted without the consent of the relevant house. This may be regarded as a security against the obstruction of members by abuse of the processes of law, but in view of the general integrity of the criminal process in Australia, it would not seem to be appropriate here.

The other two minor immunities seldom arise in practice. There is good ground for retaining them, however: the principle that the Houses should have first right to the services of their members, witnesses and officers, and that those services should not be impeded by the requirements of legal proceedings before a court.

Section 14 of the 1987 Act codifies the immunities from arrest in a civil cause and from compulsory attendance before a court or tribunal. The Act restricts the immunities to five days before and five days after a meeting of a House or committee. Before the Act was passed these immunities operated for 40 days before and after a session, that is, in modern times, virtually permanently.

The immunity from being compelled to attend before a court or tribunal does not prevent a member, witness or officer attending voluntarily when requested to do so. (See Supplement)

The exemption from jury service of members and officers of the Houses is regulated by the Jury Exemption Act 1965.

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