Andrew Geddis blogs on the issue of privilege for what civil servants say to MPs:
The central issue that the Privileges Committee is considering is relatively straightforward to understand, but tricky to resolve. It arose out of the Supreme Court’s decision in Gow v Leigh – a case I discussed in a previous post here, so won’t cover in detail again. In the course of that judgment, the Supreme Court ruled that the absolute privilege against any legal consequence that attaches to those who speak during a proceeding in Parliament does not extend to public servants who are advising Ministers of what to say to Parliament. Consequently, if a civil servant gives a Minister information about an individual or organisation that is false and defamatory, and the Minister subsequently repeats it in Parliament, then the civil servant potentially can be sued for defamation (even though the Minister cannot be, because the Minister enjoys absolute privilege with respect to her or his remarks).
I’m a fairly simple guy, and think it is a good thing if civil servants do not tell Ministers things that are defamatory and incorrect. I also think it is a good thing if there are some consequences for doing so.
This fact then means that the sole justification for extending absolute privilege to the public servant when providing information to the Minister lies in the consequentialist-based harm that may be done to that institution if public servant’s do not have the benefit of that privilege. In other words, if public servants don’t feel able to speak fully and freely with Ministers without fear of attracting subsequent legal liability, then they may hedge and trim their communications in a way that denies Ministers the information they need to fully answer questions posed to them by the House.
Obviously, this would be a bad outcome for the House as an institution. But how likely is it to occur? Remember first of all that under the Supreme Court’s reading of the law, public servants still enjoy qualified privilege to protect them when speaking with Ministers (as, indeed, does anyone who is speaking to an MP in the course of their duties). This fact means that unless a plaintiff can prove that a public servant abused that privilege by acting out of ill will or otherwise taking advantage of the opportunity, the public servant enjoys the same degree of legal protection as if the privilege was absolute. Therefore, the only speech that will attract actual liability is where a public servant sees a chance to settle some score with an individual or group that the public servant doesn’t like and gives a Minister false and defamatory information, which the Minister then passes on to the House .
I suppose it could be the case that individual public servants become so risk-averse that they deliberately run the risk of sending their Minister into the House with less information than they themselves hold. But I wonder if this fear does not misread public service culture – my observation of “inside the beltway” practice is that public servants are more terrified of being the cause of a Minister’s embarrassment and wrath than anything else in this world. Furthermore, we need to remember what a public servant becoming liable for a defamatory statement to a Minister actually means in practice. The public servant won’t have to hire lawyers and worry about damages. Those will be covered by the public servant’s department. So at most the public servant will be somewhat inconvenienced by having to provide affidavits in defence of the action. And that would seem to be a risk that public servants face on a daily basis, insofar as their advice may result in Ministerial actions that are subject to judicial review and the like.