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What is impeachment?

Impeachment was a means by which Parliament could prosecute and try individuals, normally holders of public office, for high treason or other crimes and misdemeanours. The impeachment process was invented prior to the creation of popular political parties and the establishment of the conventions of collective and individual ministerial responsibility. When impeachment was used, for example in the 16th and 17th century, it represented the only means by which Parliament could dismiss an individual holding office under the Crown.

The first edition of Erskine May, published in 1844, describes impeachment as: “the commons, as a great representative inquest of the nation, first find the crime and then, as prosecutors, support their charge before the lords; while the lords exercising at once the functions of a high court of justice and of a jury, try and also adjudicate upon the charge preferred”.

When was impeachment used?

The first recorded use of the procedure was in 1376, when Lord Latimer was impeached. The procedure was last used, unsuccessfully, in 1806 for Lord Melville (Dundas). There have been fewer than seventy impeachments during the whole course of English history.

There are two distinct periods in which impeachment was relatively common; firstly in the 14th century until the establishment of the Tudor dynasty and secondly in the 17th and 18th centuries. A quarter of all of them occurred between 1640 and 1642, when parliamentarians revived the ancient right.

Why is impeachment considered obsolete?

The 1967 Select Committee on Parliamentary Privilege listed impeachment as being among the existing privileges of the House in its corporate capacity. The committee recommended that the right to impeach should be formally abandoned via legislation. No such legislation was introduced. The recommendation was repeated in the third report from the Committee on Privileges in 1976-77. More recently the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege Report stated, in 1999, that ‘the circumstances in which impeachment has taken place are now so remote from the present that that the procedure may be considered obsolete.’

Impeachment operated in an era when Parliament and the courts had very limited oversight of government power. Different mechanisms have developed in modern politics to allow for the scrutiny of the executive. These include parliamentary questions, inquiries by select committees and independent committees of inquiry. The growth of the doctrine of collective cabinet responsibility, and the use of confidence motions have both contributed to the disuse of impeachments in modern times. Judicial review also now provides an effective check on the legality of the actions of public officials and government ministers. The impeachment process, last attempted in 1806, has not been revised to reflect the fundamental changes that have occurred in Parliament.

This Briefing Paper replaces Standard Note 02666

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