Rights of witnesses
Subject to what is said above about members of other houses, there is no limitation on the power of the houses to compel the attendance of witnesses, the giving of evidence and the production of documents.
This gave rise to concern in the past about the treatment of witnesses. It was contended that witnesses could be seriously disadvantaged when compelled to appear and give evidence before parliamentary committees in so far as there was no requirement on committees to grant rights to witnesses, particularly the right to consult or be represented by counsel, and the right to refrain from answering questions where their answers might incriminate them.
The Senate has adopted a range of practices designed to safeguard the rights of witnesses and of people who may be accused of wrongdoing in the course of committee proceedings.
These practices were codified by the Privilege Resolutions, passed by the Senate on 25 February 1988. The first of these resolutions provides a code of procedures for Senate committees to follow for the protection of witnesses. The resolution confers a number of rights on witnesses, particularly the right to object to questions put in a committee hearing and to have such objections duly considered. Persons referred to adversely in evidence are entitled to respond, and all witnesses must be protected against any interference on account of their evidence. Witnesses may make application to be accompanied by and to seek advice from counsel before answering questions. Witnesses are to be supplied with copies of the procedures, and may appeal to the Senate if a committee fails to observe the procedures.
Witnesses to parliamentary committees are protected by the powers of the houses to punish contempts and by certain provisions of the 1987 Act. It is an offence punishable by fine or imprisonment to interfere with a parliamentary witness. Specifically witnesses may not be improperly influenced by fraud, intimidation, force or threat nor may they be offered any inducement or bribe in relation to their evidence. No penalty or injury may be inflicted on a witness on account of their evidence.