Supreme Court Ends Immunity For Lawmakers Taking Bribes-to-Vote

5 Mar 2024  Read 2176 Views

Unfortunately, India has the highest bribery rate in Asia & according to a survey, 18% of people are offered bribes in exchange for votes. While bribery in the territory of India is illegal, once upon a time, when an MP was caught for taking bribes, the Supreme Court said that Lawmakers cannot be charged since they enjoy Parliamentary Privileges.

But now, the Supreme Court has put an end to this unjust loophole. On 4 March 2024, the 7-judges bench of the Supreme Court ruled that lawmakers can indeed be prosecuted for bribery, even if they're members of Parliament or state assemblies.

In detail, let's know about certain privileges enjoyed by lawmakers and what made the Supreme Court take this much-needed step!

What Has Happened?

  • On 4 March 2024, the Supreme Court pronounced its judgement on whether MPs/MLAs can claim immunity for bribes taken for votes/speeches in Parliament/Assemblies.
  • The bench also decided the scope of legislative privileges under Articles 105(2) & 194(2) of the Constitution.

If you want to read about Parliamentary Privileges in India, then click on the link.

Privileges Of The Members Of The Houses Of Parliament

 

Background of the Case

The entire case began during the Rajya Sabha Elections of 2012, when Sita Soren, a member of the Jharkhand Legislative Assembly representing the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), was accused of accepting a bribe in exchange for her vote. It was claimed an independent candidate offered her money to vote for him. However, since the voting was done openly, she ended up voting for a candidate from JMM.

Afterwards, she went to the Jharkhand High Court to quash the criminal charges against her. She claimed that, as an MLA, she was protected by Article 194(2) of the Constitution. She cited a 1988 Supreme Court decision, PV Narasimha Rao v State, which stated that lawmakers have immunity for their speech and votes in the House under Article 105(2) as part of parliamentary privileges.

If you want to read about Election Laws & How Are Elections Held In India, then click on the link.

What Was Decided In PV Narasimha Rao V. State (JMM Bribery case)?

In 1998, a five-judge bench in the PV Narasimha Rao v State case interpreted Articles 105(2) & 194(2). The SC said that legislators are protected from criminal prosecution for bribery related to their speeches and votes in Parliament and Legislative Assemblies.

What made the Supreme Court Reconsider the Narasimha Case?

  • In 2014, the Jharkhand High Court refused to quash the case filed against Sita Soren by the CBI, leading to an appeal at the Supreme Court that same year.
  • In 2019, a panel of the 3-judges considered the appeal and noted that the PV Narasimha decision directly addressed such cases.
  • However, the bench noted that the case was decided by a 3:2 split among the five judges and stated that the issue was a matter of "substantial public importance".
  • Therefore, the case was transferred to a larger bench.
  • In September 2023, a 5-judges bench led by CJI identified issues that needed to be reconsidered from the case and referred the case to a 7-judges bench.

Arguments In Favour Of Immunity For Legislator

  • Legislators have complete protection from court proceedings under the concerned Articles.
  • The Speaker of Parliament and the Legislative Assembly have the authority to remove legislators for their moral misconduct.
  • Votes given in the Rajya Sabha elections differ from votes given as a part of the legislative process to turn a bill into a law.
  • As Soren's case deals with Rajya Sabha elections, the decision in PV Narasimha has no bearing on it.

Arguments Against It

  • The offence of bribery is considered complete the moment money is accepted in exchange for a promise to act a certain way.
  • Whether or not the promise is fulfilled after receiving the money doesn't matter in proving someone guilty of bribery.

3 Things the Supreme Court Said in Sita Soren V. Union Of India 

Initially, the Bench noticed that Articles 194(2) and 105(2) aim to ensure legislators can vote freely without worrying about consequences rather than shielding them from breaking criminal laws. In the present case, the 7-judges bench unanimously ruled that:-

  1. No Immunity: The parliamentarians are not protected by parliamentary immunity under Articles 105(2) and 194(2) of the Constitution for acts of bribery. This decision overturned the 3:2 ruling made in the PV Narasimha Rao v State (1998) case.
  2. Legislative Privileges: Granting privileges unrelated to the functioning of Parliament or legislature would create a class that enjoys unchecked exemptions from the operation of law.
  3. 2 Fold Test: To determine the scope of privilege enjoyed under Articles 105(2) and 194(2). 
  • It has to be linked to the collective functioning of the Houses.
  • It must have a functional relationship to the discharge of duties.

Conclusion

This Supreme Court's decision made it very clear that bribery isn't covered by parliamentary privilege. By ending immunity for lawmakers who engage in bribery, the court marked a big win for democracy and reaffirmed that no one is above the law, not even those elected to represent us in Parliament or state assemblies.

It also serves as a reminder that the privileges granted to legislators are meant to help them do their job for the public good, not to protect them from being punished for breaking the law.

About the Author: Anirudh Nikhare | 29 Post(s)

Anirudh did his Bachelor's in Law and has practical experience in IPR, Contracts, and Corporate. He is your go-to legal content writer turning head-scratching legal topics into easy-to-understand gems of wisdom. Through his blog, he aims to empower readers with knowledge, making legal concepts digestible and applicable to everyday life.

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