Reference:  AC 395
Court: House of Lords
Judge: Lords Browne-Wilkinson, Steyn, Cooke, Hope and Clyde
Date of judgment: 23 Mar 2000
Summary: Defamation - libel action over allegations on television of corruption by Member of Parliament - parliamentary privilege - waiver under section 13 of Defamation Act 1996 - trial requiring investigation of same issues as Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards - whether libel action involved breach of parliamentary privilege and should be stayed.
Desmond Browne CBE QC - Leading Counsel (Claimant)
Adrienne Page QC - Leading Counsel (Claimant)
Instructing Solicitors: Crockers Oswald Hickson for Mr Hamilton; D J Freeman for Mr Fayed
The claimant, who was then a Member of Parliament, was accused by the defendant in a television broadcast of taking cash in return for asking questions in the House of Commons. The claimant lost his seat in the 1997 General Election. The allegation was investigated by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards who concluded it was true. The Committee on Standards and Privileges made a report in which they neither accepted nor rejected that finding. Their report was approved by resolution of the House of Commons. The claimant brought a libel action against the defendant having waived parliamentary privilege under section 13 of the Defamation Act 1996. The defendant sought to have the action struck out or stayed as an abuse of process or as infringing parliamentary privilege. He failed before the Judge and the Court of Appeal.
On appeal to the House of Lords the only issue was whether the defamation action was in potential breach of parliamentary privilege. This turned on whether the individual Member of Parliament, by a waiver under 13 of the 1996 Act could enable the court to entertain evidence and investigate the conduct of a Member of Parliament or other participant in parliamentary proceedings or whether Parliament as a whole retained a privilege that could not be waived by the individual Member.
The House of Lords held unanimously that the claimant’s waiver under section 13 was a complete answer to the application for a stay. Such a waiver had the effect of allowing the questioning of parliamentary proceedings for the purpose of the defamation action without it being an infringement of the autonomous jurisdiction of Parliament. The trial of the action could therefore proceed.
This was a somewhat surprising challenge to Mr Hamilton’s libel claim against Mr Fayed. Section 13 of the Defamation Act 1996 had been enacted at least in part expressly to enable Mr Hamilton to proceed with his earlier defamation action against The Guardian. It was now being argued that the section was not effective to enable the court to entertain an action on identical issues against Mr Fayed. It is worth noting that the House of Lords gave Mr Fayed permission to appeal on the basis that he would bear the costs whatever the outcome.