In both practice and law, Ghana’s Parliament forms the fulcrum on which the country’s nascent democracy revolves. This position adequately reflects an observation by the Right Hon. Speaker of the 8th Parliament, Alban Sumana Kingsford Bagbin who stated that: “The Parliament of Ghana is considered the nerve centre of Ghana’s democracy. Over the years, it has come to be recognised as the symbol of the nation’s hopes and aspirations and the fountainhead of policy and decision-making in the Republic.”
The Parliament of Ghana works towards meeting the hopes and aspirations of Ghanaians through the performance of its law-making, oversight, financial and budget approval, and deliberative functions. These functions are performed by the House through the Hon. Members of Parliament who constitute it.
For this reason, the Parliament of Ghana, and its Committees Members are accorded certain special rights called Parliamentary privileges to enable them to deliver the hopes and aspirations of the people.
One of such privileges is immunity from arrest and service of court processes which has attracted intense public debate following the attempt by the Ghana Police Service to arrest the Member for Madina, Mr Francis Xavier-Sosu for alleged offences committed during a demonstration he led on Monday, 25th October 2021 to protest against the deplorable state of roads in the Madina Constituency.
The purpose of this treatise is to highlight the concept of Parliamentary privileges and the justification for the concept in Parliamentary democracies.
DEFINITION AND HISTORY OF PARLIAMENTARY PRIVILEGES
In Parliamentary parlance, the term Parliamentary privileges refer to special rights and immunities enjoyed by Parliament and its Committees, and individual Members of Parliament.
Parliamentary privileges are said to have originated in the House of Commons in 1689 after the English Civil War to rid itself of interference or influence by the Monarch. The first set of Parliamentary privileges were found in the Bill of Rights of 1689 as “the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament.”
The nature and scope of Parliamentary privileges have expanded over the years and have been established as one of the key features of most developed Parliamentary democracies. In Ghana, the 1992 Constitution grants number of privileges to Parliament, its Committees and Hon. Members of Parliament.
The privileges conferred on Hon. Members include freedom of speech, debates and proceedings (Article 115 of the 1992 Constitution), immunity from proceedings for acts in Parliament (Article 116 of the 1992 Constitution), immunity from service of process and arrest (Article 117 of the 1992 Constitution), immunity from witness summons (Article 118 of the 1992 Constitution), immunity from service as Juror (Article 119 of the 1992 Constitution), and immunity from the publication of proceedings (Article 120 of the 1992 Constitution).
ENFORCEMENT OF PARLIAMENTARY PRIVILEGES
An individual or authority that disregards or flouts any Parliamentary privilege commits an offence termed breach of privilege, and be liable to punishment by Parliament after the Committee of Privileges of the House establishes the guilt of the offender. The punishments are prescribed in the Parliament Act, 1965 (Act 300) and they include a custodial sentence.
It is the duty of the Speaker of Parliament to ensure the protection and enjoyment of Parliamentary privileges.
JUSTIFICATION FOR PARLIAMENTARY PRIVILEGES
According to Kaul on Codification of the Law of Privilege, the principal essence of Parliamentary privilege is to maintain the dignity of the House and its Members. Members of parliament are particularly accorded the special rights to enable them to perform their duties in Parliament without let or hindrance.
Parliamentary privileges also safeguard the freedom, authority and dignity of Parliament and Members of Parliament facilitate the proper exercise of the functions entrusted to Parliament and Members of Parliament.
According to the Committee of Experts Report on the 1969 Constitution which drafted Parliamentary privileges in the 1969 Constitution and later reproduced in the 1992 Constitution, the justification for granting immunity to Hon. Members from arrest and service of court processes are to “…ensure that Hon. Members of Parliament are not distracted by arrests and detentions while they are travelling to and from Parliament or while they are attending Parliament.”
Parliamentary privileges exist in varied formulations across most modern democracies including Ghana. These privileges are not intended to place Hon. Members of Parliament above the law.
Rather, they are designed to establish an anchor for a strong and independent Parliament that is insulated from interference from the Executive, empower Hon. Members of Parliament to perform their duties without let or hindrance, promote checks and balances within the governance system, and enable the august House to deliver the hopes and aspirations of the people of Ghana.
Antiedu, B. T. (2019). Reading the Law. Pentecost Printing Press Ltd.
Darfour, E. (2021). The Legislative system of Ghana. DigiBooks Ghana Ltd.
Kaul, M. N. & Shakdher, S. L. (2016). Practice and Procedure of Parliament (7th edition). Lok Sabha Secretariat, India.
May, T. M. (2019). Erskine May Parliamentary Practice (25th edition). LexisNexis Butterworths.
The 1992 Constitution of the Republic of Parliament.
The Parliament Act, 1965 (Act 300).
The Standing Orders of Parliament, 2000.