Transcript of Tommy Sheridan’s cross-examination of Andy Coulson ‘inadmissible’ at perjury trial due to ‘parliamentary privilege’
A transcript of a passage of Tommy Sheridan’s cross-examination of Andrew Coulson during the former MSP’s perjury trial was inadmissible in evidence at the trial of the ex-editor of the News of the World for allegedly making false statements under oath.
The Criminal Appeal Court ruled that the evidence, which related to comments made by Mr Coulson to a parliamentary committee, was protected by parliamentary privilege.
Lord Menzies, Lord Brodie (pictured) and Lady Clark of Calton heard that Lord Burns had accepted that the effect of parliamentary privilege was that evidence of what had been said by a witness before a select committee would not be admissible in civil or criminal proceedings in Scotland, if the use of such evidence would involve imputations of criminality on the part of the witnesses.
But he did not accept that parliamentary privilege rendered the evidence in the Coulson trial inadmissible, as what the Crown proposed to lead in support of the charge of perjury was the evidence given by the appellant at the Sheridan trial and not the evidence given by the appellant or anyone else before the select committee.
Parliamentary privilege did not extend to conferring absolute privilege on what a private citizen may say outside Parliament simply because it ran contrary to a finding by a parliamentary committee, even if that private citizen has previously given evidence before that committee.
However, on appeal Murdo Macleod QC submitted that the parts of the transcript identified in the preliminary issue minute should be held to be inadmissible in evidence at the appellant’s then forthcoming trial.
He argued that what is said or done in the House of Commons in the course of proceedings there could not be examined outside parliament for the purpose of supporting a cause of action, even although the cause of action itself arose out of something done outside the House.
By his questioning in the passages of evidence identified, Mr Sheridan had “violated the privilege of Parliament” and to allow the Crown to put these passages before the jury at the appellant’s trial “would be to repeat that violation”.
The advocate depute Richard Goddard submitted that Lord Burns had not erred in repelling the objection made in the preliminary issue minute, as it could not be said that the questions and answers in the relevant passages impugned what had been said in the committee or done by the committee or suggested that what was said or done was inspired by improper motives.
He argued that one had to look at the precise terms of the questions and the answers and what the Crown was relying on in the present case was what the appellant had said at the Sheridan trial, not what he may have said to the committee, therefore parliamentary privilege was simply not engaged.
However, the appeal judges recalled Lord Burns’ decision on the preliminary issue, ruling that the evidence identified should not be admissible at the appellant’s trial.
Delivering the opinion of the court - published following the acquittal of Mr Coulson after a “no case to answer” submission was sustained by Lord Burns at the close of the Crown case - Lord Brodie said: “We have had little difficulty in concluding that for the Crown to lead the evidence objected to would be to offend against the privilege of Parliament or, to put it differently, would lead the High Court of Justiciary to intrude upon an area where it has no jurisdiction.
“Mr Sheridan did not set out simply to establish that the appellant had given evidence before the select committee. His apparent objective was to establish or at least imply what that evidence had been and that it had been given by the appellant “with some clarity” when his memory served him well.
“Mr Sheridan then asked whether the appellant remembered the committee finding that the News of the World had turned a blind eye or at worst condoned phone hacking and ‘blagging’ (i.e. unlawfully obtaining or disclosing personal data).
“At that point Mr Sheridan’s clear purpose was to suggest, by reference to the committee’s finding, either that the appellant had admitted as much to the committee or that he had denied it and not been believed. That was to put in issue both what the appellant had said and the committee’s conclusion on what he had said.
“This exchange makes plain that the passage of the transcript of the Sheridan trial which the Crown proposes to lead, clearly relates to the proceedings before the select committee and therefore falls within the exclusive jurisdiction of Parliament. To found upon it in court proceedings would be to offend against the privilege of Parliament…”
The judges explained that what was in issue was “not the protection of the interests of the appellant”, but the “protection the public interest” in Parliament receiving evidence “without members and witnesses being fearful of being subject to court proceedings” as a consequence of what they have said.
Lord Brodie continued: “By drawing attention to the committee’s findings, particularly in the context of the appellant disagreeing with these findings and being accused of concealing the truth, the findings of the committee and therefore the conduct and outcome of the proceedings before it which led to the committee making these findings, may all be put in issue. It appears to us to be as much an intrusion on the exclusive jurisdiction of Parliament to seek, for the purpose of court proceedings, to persuade a jury to endorse the findings of a parliamentary committee as to persuade it to reject them.”
He added: “But even if that were not so, what about the position of the appellant? Once the Crown has put details of the committee’s proceedings and conclusions before the jury, as it proposes to do by leading the relevant passages in the transcript, might he not wish to challenge them?
“We simply do not understand how, in the context of this case, evidence of the committee’s proceedings can be put before the jury without allowing these proceedings to be challenged in one way or another. Indeed doing so invites such challenge. That is just what the doctrine of parliamentary privilege forbids.”