One thing about the Brits and their legal system, they’ve got a long history, and anyone who wants to research it – or challenge it – has a high hill to climb. We refer specifically to the concept, which we have here in the Cayman Islands, of parliamentary privilege, also known (a bit erroneously) in some circles as legislative immunity.
Nearly a century before Christopher Columbus embarked upon his maiden voyage to the New World, in 1397 to be precise, Thomas Haxey presented a bill to the House of Commons that was critical of the costs of King Richard II’s coterie. At the urging of the offended monarch, the lords condemned Haxey for treason, under punishment of death. Through the protection of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Haxey avoided execution, and in 1399 after King Henry IV took power, the judgment was reversed. Haxey’s situation now stands a seminal case establishing the right of free speech in the House of Commons.
Another early, and perhaps even more directly relevant case, involves a bill introduced by Member of Parliament Richard Strode in 1512 (a mere nine years after Columbus espied the Sister Islands, and a half century before the birth of Shakespeare). Strode’s bill concerned conditions for workers in the Cornwall tin industry. Before he could travel to Parliament to present the bill, he was prosecuted in the local court, fined and imprisoned. Upon his release, Parliament annulled the judgment and preemptively voided any legal proceedings brought against current or future lawmakers for their actions in Parliament.
Stepping forward 500 years, parliamentary privilege is a well-established right in the U.K. and has been transmitted throughout the Commonwealth, including Cayman’s Legislative Assembly.
The intended purpose of parliamentary privilege seems clear: to allow elected representatives to carry on the people’s business and to pursue debate without fear of intimidation or restraints on their independence as legislators.
It is a noble concept and perhaps a necessary condition of parliamentary governance.
However, far too often in Cayman’s Legislative Assembly, we witness the power of parliamentary privilege being exercised so that lawmakers can – in the spirit of politics rather than policy – say things they would never dream of otherwise uttering in public.
Rather than attempting to hold a spendthrift sovereign accountable, or to advocate for the vulnerable and voiceless, we see Cayman’s lawmakers invoking parliamentary privilege in order to broadcast (sometimes bizarre) allegations against individuals or organizations, to abuse personal and political opponents, to engage in hateful speech against certain groups or even … ahem … to accuse the Compass of perpetrating “a treasonous attack on the Cayman Islands” by exercising its right to free speech (that was neither libelous nor defamatory).
Put another way, our lawmakers take up the defensive shield of parliamentary privilege and employ it as a weapon to bash their adversaries into submission.
Parliamentary privilege aims to promote courage. It also galvanizes cowardice.
Cayman’s political campaign season is nascent. Lawmakers have just begun what may be the final session of the Legislative Assembly under the ruling Progressives government and before the upcoming May 24 elections. It is of particular importance for the public to be aware of the existence of parliamentary privilege, and that our lawmakers are acutely aware of the special protections they enjoy – and their opponents lack – while they launch fiery verbal salvos.
The courts cannot hold lawmakers accountable for what they say in the Legislative Assembly. The only checks on lawmakers’ actions within parliament are the consequences of voters’ actions within the polling stations.