Impeachment In The United Kingdom

Impeachment has been in the news lately on both sides of the Atlantic. While Democrats in the United States House of Representatives have formally launched impeachment proceedings against President Trump, Plaid Cymru’s leader in the Commons has suggested that Boris Johnson should be impeached as well. But Johnson needn’t worry on that front—unlike in America, impeachment in the United Kingdom has fallen into desuetude. In this post, we’ll look at how impeachment worked in Britain and we’ll see why it’s unlikely to be used against Johnson or anyone else.

Impeachment in the UK was procedurally similar to its American cousin.[1] The process began in the House of Commons. If MPs voted in favor of a motion to impeach, the mover of the motion went to the bar of the House of Lords to inform them of the impeachment. Afterward, the Commons would appoint a committee to draw up articles of impeachment, which were then sent to the Lords along with the answer of the accused.

If the accused was a peer, they were taken into custody by order of the House of Lords. If they were a commoner, they were arrested by the Commons’ Serjeant-at-Arms and delivered to the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod (who acts as the Serjeant-at-Arms of the Lords). The accused remained in custody unless the Lords decided otherwise.

The Lords then fixed a day for the trial (Westminster Hall being the usual venue), and the Commons appointed managers to present their case. Both the prosecution and the defense could ask the Lords to summon witnesses.  

The person presiding over the trial depended on the status of the accused. The Crown would appoint a Lord High Steward[2] to preside over the trial of a peer, while the Lord Chancellor presided over the trial of a commoner. In both cases, members of the House of Lords served as the jury.

The Commons would attend the trial as a Committee of the Whole House in order to hear the managers present their case. When they had finished, the accused’s counsel would present their case. After all the evidence was presented, the peers gave their verdict. Starting with the junior baron, each peer would rise in place with their rights hand over their breast and say “guilty [or not guilty], upon my honor”. When all had spoken, the Lord on the Woolsack gave his vote. The process would be repeated for each article presented by the Commons. A simple majority was sufficient to convict.

A not-guilty verdict meant that the impeachment was dismissed, but if the Lords handed down a guilty verdict for any of the articles, the Commons then had the option to ask the Lords to proceed to judgment (without this step, the Lords couldn’t impose penalties). The Commons did not always move for judgment, and their failure to do so could act as a sort of pardon for the accused.

When the Lords had decided on their judgment, both the accused and the managers from the Commons would be called to the bar of the House of Lords. The accused was allowed to point out any mitigating factors. Once they’d finished, the Speaker of the Commons would demand judgment in the name of the whole House, and the Lord High Steward or Lord Chancellor would announce the punishment. The peers were free to apply whatever penalties they thought appropriate.  While a pardon from the Crown could not block an impeachment, it could waive the penalties imposed by the Lords.  

Erskine May described the rationale for impeachment as follows:

The times in which its exercise was needed were those in which the people were jealous of the Crown when the Parliament had less control over prerogative when courts of justice were impure and when instead of vindicating the law the Crown and its officers resisted its execution and screened political offenders from justice.[3]

Impeachment was first used against Lord Latimer in 1376 during the reign of Edward III.[4] Impeachments would be relatively common during the next four reigns, but the practice fell by the wayside during the chaos of the Wars of the Roses. It remained dormant during the reigns of the Tudors, and bills of attainder became Parliament’s preferred method for dealing with objectionable individuals. Impeachment made a comeback under the Stuarts in the seventeenth century, as unlike bills of attainder, impeachment didn’t require the Monarch’s approval. A quarter of all recorded impeachments took place between 1640 and 1642 due to the breakdown of the relationship between Parliament and Charles I.[5] However, two of the most famous impeachments from that era—those of Archbishop Laud of Canterbury and the Earl of Strafford—were subsequently abandoned and replaced with bills of attainder. In his politically weakened state, the King had no choice but to give them Royal Assent.[6]

In 1681, the Commons impeached Edward Fitzharris for his purported role in the Popish Plot, but the House of Lords refused to act. This provoked the Commons to pass the following resolution:

That it is the undoubted Right of the Commons in Parliament assembled, to impeach, before the Lords in Parliament, any Peer or Commoner for Treason, or any other Crime or Misdemeanor: And that the Refusal of the Lords to proceed in Parliament upon such Impeachment is a Denial of Justice, and a Violation of the Constitution of Parliaments.[7]    

The Commons’ resolution makes it clear that impeachment in the UK can be used against anyone, not just government officials. Indeed, in 1709, the Commons impeached an Anglican clergyman named Henry Sacheverell over the contents of one of his sermons. The Lords ultimately convicted him, though he ultimately received a lenient sentence.[8]

By the latter part of the eighteenth century, the notion of responsible government began to take hold, and impeachment became less important. However, Warren Hastings, Governor-General of Bengal, was impeached for his conduct in India, resulting in a seven-year trial (1788-1795) before the House of Lords that ended in his acquittal. The last person to be successfully impeached in the UK was Viscount Melville in 1806 (he was also acquitted). Aside from a failed attempt to impeach Viscount Palmerston in 1848, there have been no further serious attempts at impeachment.[9]

While the impeachment process has never been abolished,[10] it’s commonly regarded as obsolete. As the House of Commons Library’s briefing paper on impeachment notes:

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.[11]  

Furthermore, the impeachment process has not been modified to reflect the changes that have occurred in Parliament since the nineteenth century. The idea of an un-elected chamber like the House of Lords sitting in judgment of someone would likely seem inappropriate today. The fact that the Standing Orders of the Commons give precedence to government business also makes it harder for an MP to move for an impeachment, though recent events have shown how determined backbenchers might get around that obstacle.

The biggest drawback to impeachment is that it doesn’t sit well with modern standards of judicial fairness since MPs can effectively impeach anyone for anything, even if it’s not actually a recognized crime. The lack of an appeal mechanism also makes the process problematic given that impeachment in Britain isn’t just about removing someone from office. In theory, the Lords could impose a fine or even jail time, so the lack of an appeal would potentially give rise to injustice.    

Given the issues with impeachment and the ready availability of other, better remedies, Parliament should probably just abolish it.


[1] The following is taken from Thomas Erskine May, A Treatise Upon the Laws, Privileges, Proceedings, and Usage of Parliament, (London: Charles Knight & Co., 1844), 376-380.

[2] The Lord High Steward should not be confused with the Lord Steward, who is an officer of the Royal Household. The office of Lord High Steward hasn’t been regularly filled since the fifteenth century. Instead, it’s been filled on an ad hoc basis. The most common reason for appointing a Lord High Steward has been to take part in the coronation ceremony, but in times past they were also appointed to preside over the trial of peers (whether by impeachment or as an ordinary criminal trial).

[3] Erskine May, 374.

[4] Latimer was accused of “selling licenses exempting merchants from the Calais staple, and for organizing loans to the king at extortionate rates of interest.” See Andrew Thrush, “Impeachment in the early seventeenth century,” The History of Parliament (blog), May 12. 2016, https://thehistoryofparliament.wordpress.com/2016/05/12/impeachment-in-the-early-seventeenth-century/.

[5] Jack Simson Caird, “Impeachment,” House of Commons Library Briefing Paper Number CBP7612, 6 June 2016, part 2.

[6] Charles tried to pardon Laud, but it didn’t save him from the headsman’s block.

[7] “House of Commons Journal Volume 9: 26 March 1681,” in Journal of the House of Commons: Volume 9, 1667-1687, (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1802), 710-712. British History Online, accessed September 28, 2019, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/commons-jrnl/vol9/pp710-712.

[8] For more information of Sacheverell’s trial, see Geoffrey Holmes, The Trial of Doctor Sacheverell, (London: Eyre Methuen, 1973).

[9] Some of the smaller parties in the Commons proposed impeaching Tony Blair over his role in the Iraq War, but their efforts never went anywhere.

[10] In 1967, the Select Committee on Parliamentary Privilege recommended that impeachment should be abolished by legislation, but this never occurred.

[11] Caird, part 3.

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