Mr. Speaker, I rise today on a question of privilege relating to the matter of parliamentary privilege exempting members from being called as witnesses in any court when the House is in session.
On April 23, the British Columbia Court of Appeal rendered its decision in what is known as the Ainsworth case. The issue in that case was whether the member for LaSalle—Émard could claim that parliamentary privilege provided him with a lawful reason for failing to attend an examination for discovery.
Before going further, I wish to outline that I am not raising this issue at the request of the hon. member for LaSalle—Émard, and I did only inform him on Friday that I was raising it in the House as a matter of courtesy. Rather I had discussions with a number of officials around this place and people elsewhere immensely concerned with the issue of privilege which I am about to raise.
In his text, Parliamentary Privilege in Canada, Joseph Maingot states at page 161:
A Member of the Senate or House of Commons is not required to answer a subpoena to attend as a witness before a court of law in either criminal or civil matter or before administrative or military court or tribunal. The immunity extends to the same period of time as exemption from civil arrest, i.e. 40 days before and after a session, and 40 days after a dissolution.
This privilege is based on the tradition in the United Kingdom long before Confederation and has been the practice of this House since 1867.
In the Ainsworth decision, the B.C. court confirmed the existence of parliamentary privilege of members against participating in legal proceedings when Parliament was in session. The court recognized that this applied throughout the parliamentary session, including adjournments and other periods when the Houses were not sitting.
However the court ruled that there was no legal support for extending this privilege for 40 days before or after a parliamentary session, and here is the problem.
There are therefore aspects of the court's ruling that are consistent with Canadian practice since 1867, but the court's interpretation of parliamentary privilege calls into question a privilege asserted by Parliament and members of this House and members of provincial legislatures with respect to the so-called 40 day rule.
The courts ruling raises an important issue for us. This is the question of whether it is the role of Parliament or the role of the courts to define what parliamentary privilege is.
It seems to me that the Constitution and the convention provide that it is for Parliament to state what its privileges are with respect to matters related to Parliament and its proceedings.
I would suggest that it is the tradition of Parliament that the 40 day rule is a privilege related to the functioning of Parliament. In such matters, it seems to me that is for Parliament and not the courts to decide what is or not a matter of parliamentary privilege.
If Parliament decides that 40 days should be 35, 32, 6 or 50, that is within the jurisdiction of Parliament to make that decision.
In this context I want to quote what Madam Justice Beverley McLachlin, Her Ladyship, now Chief Justice of Canada, stated in the New Brunswick Broadcasting case. On behalf of the court, she said:
It has long been accepted that in order to perform their functions, legislative bodies require certain privileges relating to the conduct of their business. It has also long been accepted that these privileges must be held absolutely and constitutionally if they are to be effective...
Not partially, not anything else, absolutely and constitutionally if they are to be effective, if I can put emphasis on that part of Her Ladyship's statement. She went on to say:
--the legislative branch of our government must enjoy a certain autonomy which even the Crown and the courts cannot touch.
This is very important to all parliamentarians. It has been historically understood that this privilege was extended for a period of 40 days before and after a parliamentary session.
More importantly, the House of Commons has the fundamental and prior right to the attendance and service of its members in the best interests of Canadians.
As indicated, the House and its members have historically enjoyed a number of rights and privileges allowing them to perform their essential functions. Recognition of these privileges is fundamental, to ensure the proper functioning of our democratic institutions.
It is the duty of this House and all its members, as well as yours, Mr. Speaker, to affirm and uphold these privileges without, of course, interfering with the ongoing judicial process.
For these reasons, I ask that you decide whether there is a prima facie question of privilege and, if so, refer this matter to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. Naturally, in due course, I will gladly move the motion necessary to bring this bill to fruition.
In conclusion, it is important for all of us to be the guardians of our privileges. If we do not and if this decision is allowed to stand, who is to say that someone else in another court at another time could not produce an opinion that privilege does not exist in the morning, on the weekend, on a day off or at other times of the day when there are generally not votes around here. Then someone could take advantage of that, subpoena an MP so that he or she could not vote on an issue important to him or her or the constituents, thereby affecting the result of something we could decide upon in the House.
This is very important for all of us. It is at the root of our system of parliamentary democracy. This privilege has existed for hundreds of years. I believe it is our duty, all of us, to send the issue to a parliamentary committee. I hope you, Mr. Speaker, will determine that there is a prima facie case of privilege. I hope all colleagues will agree with me that there is so our privileges, as an institution, can be safeguarded, not only for ourselves but for those who will sit in this venerable chamber in the future to represent Canadians.