Thursday, 14 July 2011

MPs get tough

Update: That was quick. It appears that a visit from the Deputy Serjeant at Arms was sufficient to persuade the Murdochs to appear next Tuesday after all. Quite what they think they have achieved by their side show before appearance is not clear.

There has been plenty of hypocrisy from the leaders of all the main parties in the phone "hacking" scandal involving the News of the World, and Gordon Brown's attempted explanation yesterday of his earlier close links with the newspaper proprietors concerned was both to type and frankly ludicrous. However this affair is now throwing up some very interesting legal and constitutional issues.

This is because the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee of the House of Commons is reported to have ordered this morning the Serjeant at Arms to issue formal summonses to Rupert Murdoch and his son James to appear before them on Tuesday, the Committee having had their earlier informal invitations to appear refused by the two. There has been some suggestion, most recently on the BBC's website, that because the Murdochs are American citizens they can ignore the summonses.

In my view that is wrong, and that to ignore the summonses would be extremely foolish with respect to the Murdochs' business interests in the UK.

The House of Commons has the same powers at common law as courts of law to summon attendance of people before them and for the production of papers by them. A failure to obey such a summons is a contempt of Parliament (in the case of a summons by the House of Commons) or a contempt of court (in the case of a summons by a court). Such a contempt is punishable by a fine or imprisonment. There is no need for the House of Commons to apply to court for the levying of such a fine or for imprisonment: upon finding contempt it can of its own motion commit a person to the Tower of London, or another place of detention, for imprisonment should it wish, or levy a fine.

The House of Commons has, by its standing orders for public business, delegated the power to summon people and papers to a number of its select committees. The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee is a departmental select committee established under standing order 152, and under order 152(4)(a) it is one of the committees to which that power has been so delegated. So the summonses issued by the committee are punishable as a contempt in the event of non-compliance.

I explored international jurisdictional issues involving courts of law in articles on the conflict of laws and on last year's Liverpool football club litigation. The principles concerning judgments of the House of Commons are similar. Presumably the BBC's reporter considers that contempt of Parliament may only be committed by subjects of Her Majesty, but I think they have that wrong.

Any warrant for commitment or fine issued by the House of Commons would not be enforceable in or by foreign jurisdictions. However, in my view it may be enforced against anyone within the United Kingdom and against any possessions within the United Kingdom. The fact that someone is a foreign citizen does not prevent them, whilst in the United Kingdom, being arrested, fined and imprisoned under a warrant of the House of Commons, any more than a foreign citizen remaining in the United Kingdom may escape arrest, trial and imprisonment for an offence committed whilst here. International law on such matters generally works on the basis of "my gaff, my rules" (to quote the "pub landlord" Al Murray). On criminal matters, there are various extradition treaties under which a foreign citizen who flees may be compelled by his own courts to return to the place where a serious offence was committed for trial, but that does not apply in this case.

So if either of the Murdochs fails to appear and remains in the United Kingdom, he may be arrested. Their options now are to appear, or to leave the UK. Leaving means in theory never setting foot within the UK again. But even if they leave, a fine may be levied against their assets within the UK, which includes by all accounts a large equity stake in a number of UK newspapers. Furthermore, a failure to appear before the committee may also affect any "fit and proper person" tests to which their UK-based activities are subject in the future.

So my strong guess is that (i) they will appear, and (ii) they will thereby make themselves look stupid by refusing the earlier informal invitation.

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