British lawmakers to face criminal trial over expenses

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A British judge ruled Friday that three ex-lawmakers and a peer accused of dishonestly claiming expenses will stand trial in a criminal court, rejecting their claim to parliamentary immunity.

Three former Labour members of parliament and a Conservative member of the House of Lords had sought to use a 320-year-old law to avoid being tried before a jury on charges of theft by false accounting.

But Justice Saunders told Southwark Crown Court in London: "In my judgment, the conduct alleged against these defendants is not covered by parliamentary privilege and is triable in the Crown Court.

"Unless this decision is reversed on appeal, it clears the way for what most people accused of criminal behaviour would wish for: a fair trial before an impartial jury."

Former lawmakers David Chaytor, Elliot Morley and Jim Devine, and Lord Hanningfield, also known as Paul White, were charged following revelations last year about expenses claims.

The revelations, showing claims for everything from plasma televisions to a duck house, caused a major political scandal and prompted the Labour government to introduce a stringent new set of rules on expenses claims.

The four men, who all deny wrongdoing, could appeal the decision.

Their lawyer had argued at a previous hearing that the 1689 Bill of Rights stated that only parliament had the authority to deal with proceedings in the legislature and the criminal courts had no jurisdiction over them.

© 2010 AFP

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