What is impeachment?
Updated and revised: 13 June 2009
What is ‘impeachment’?
Impeachment is a formal accusation of ‘wrongdoing’, usually where a public official is charged with improper conduct in public office, or a crime against the State(1). The word ‘impeachment’ derives from Latin roots expressing the idea of becoming caught or entrapped, and a successful impeachment often results in the individual being removed from his/her post. This mechanism means that the House of Commons as a body can accuse officials who had abused their authority and put them on trial before the Lords(2). The Commons itself could debate whether there are sufficient grounds to bring impeachment proceedings against one or more ministers or officials.
Impeachment is a constitutional tool where the Commons would prosecute a case before the House of Lords. It is described as being for "high crimes and misdemeanours beyond the reach of the law or which no other authority of the state will prosecute". Although impeachment is a way of raising a high profile issue, it is unlikely that many MPs would vote for such a measure.
Impeachment was last successfully invoked in the UK in 1806, and in 1967 there was an unsuccessful attempt to repeal this procedure. However, it has been long considered that there is no longer a need for impeachment owing to the scrutiny which now takes place in Parliament, the ability of the courts to deal with such matters, and the now-common practice of public officials resigning their posts in the event of being accused of improper conduct. Despite this, in August 2004, a group of MPs, headed by Adam Price, commissioned a report on the potential impeachment of the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, for "High Crimes and Misdemeanours in relation to the invasion of Iraq". A subsequent motion was ruled in order in November and tabled, however not selected for debate as all three main parties were whipped not to sign it.
What is the impeachment procedure?
To invoke an impeachment, a single Member of Parliament may make a formal accusation against an individual to the House of Commons. The matter is then examined by the House. If the House deems that there are sufficient grounds to justify further proceedings, the accuser then goes to the Bar of the House of Lords to impeach the accused person.
A Commons committee is then appointed to draw up articles of impeachment which are debated, agreed and presented to the Lords.
The defendant supplies written answers to the charge to the Commons, who may then communicate a reply to the Lords. The defendant is then arrested and delivered to Black Rod, although he may be released on bail.
Witnesses for the defence are appointed by the Commons and the defendant is also entitled to defence by counsel. Even if the defendant is found guilty, judgement is pronounced unless and until demanded by the Commons (which may, at this stage, pardon the accused).
An impeachment may continue from session to session, or over a dissolution. Under the Act of Settlement the sovereign has no right of pardon(4).
The Constitution of the United States also allows for impeachment, giving the House of Representatives the sole power of impeachment and the Senate the power to try convictions. In the US, impeachment proceedings have been initiated 62 times since 1789, most recently against former President Bill Clinton in 1998. Unsuprisingly, a Google search for the terms ‘impeach Bush’ yields almost a million results.
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