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

Contempts and criminal offences

Some contempts are also criminal offences, and there is nothing to prevent proceedings for contempt being undertaken before, during or after criminal proceedings for the same acts. This has not happened, however, and is unlikely to occur in practice, because the Senate would be likely either to choose between contempt proceedings and a prosecution in the courts or to refrain from employing its contempt jurisdiction if a prosecution is in the offing or in train.

Conversely, an act which has been dealt with as a contempt could also be prosecuted as a criminal offence (cf US v Traficant, US Court of Appeals, 19/5/2004, not reported; Supreme Court declined to hear appeal, 10/1/2005).

In 1997 the Senate had occasion to consider whether it should investigate a possible contempt by a senator, the making of allegedly false statements to the Senate, while police were investigating the subject matter of those statements. The senator’s statements could not be the subject of court proceedings because they were protected by parliamentary privilege. Nonetheless the Senate, while referring the statements to the Privileges Committee, determined that the committee’s inquiry should not begin until after the conclusion of the police investigations and any consequent legal proceedings (7/5/1997, J.1855-6).

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