Law, Justice and Journalism

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James Murdoch before the select committee: The rules on giving evidence

In Comment, Journalism, Law on November 11, 2011 at 10:00 am

By Professor Lorna Woods.

This post also appeared on the City Legal Research blog.

James Murdoch has been called by the select committee to verify the evidence he gave to that committee earlier this year. The problem means that his evidence conflicts with that given by others, so somebody must – at best – be misremembering events. It is timely therefore to recap briefly the rules relating to evidence given to Parliamentary select committees.

Some have noted that none of the people giving evidence have done so on oath; the argument therefore is that such witnesses cannot commit perjury. The implication that seems to be drawn from this is that people are free to lie to Parliament at will. This is not entirely the case. There are two points:

1. It is possible that a witness be required to give evidence on oath. If this were to be done, then the perjury route would be available. Of course, requiring that a witness take the oath rarely occurs. In any event, there is another way.

2. Lying to Parliament, even if you have not taken an oath, constitutes contempt of Parliament. In both cases, the body which would impose a punishment is Parliament and in both instances the punishment would be the same: imprisonment. Parliament has the power to imprison someone for contempt until the end of the Parliamentary term. Despite some claims to the contrary, it seems Parliament does not have the power to impose fines.

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