THE ADVOCATE 21
VOL. 76 PART 1 JANUARY 2018
By David Roberts, Q.C.
Impeachment: a word on everybody’s mind, if not their lips, since
November 2016’s U.S. election. So what is impeachment? Shortly
put, it is a process whereby a public official can be removed from
office. Nowadays it carries no other penalty.
England is the country that gave birth to the process of impeachment.
There, impeachment originated as a criminal proceeding initiated by the
House of Commons. The person impeached is tried by the House of Lords.
Judgment is given by a vote of the majority, which passes sentence.
The word “impeachment” derives from the French “empêcher”, which
means “to prevent, to hinder or to oppose”. But today, in the context of the
political process, “impeachment” means “accusation”. The word gradually
acquired the narrower technical meaning of an accusation made by the
House of Commons to Parliament’s upper house. The first impeachment
occurred in 1376 at a time when the Commons and the Lords united in
desiring to limit the activities of the royal officials and favourites and to prevent
them from breaking the law.
Impeachment is an accusation that is not initiated by the Crown. That
being so, the impeachment process could not be stopped by the king
granting a pardon. Thus, historically it was a method of curbing the
activities of unpopular ministers acting at the behest of the Crown. Unlike
in criminal cases brought by the Crown before the turn of the 19th
century, accused persons facing impeachment could testify in their own
The impeachment procedure fell into disuse after the last medieval
impeachment in 1459, its place taken by the more modern process of an act
of attainder, which initiated a process more like a criminal case.
The impeachment practice was revived in 1620, however, by the
impeachment of Sir Giles Mompesson, a cousin of James I’s favourite, the
Duke of Buckingham. Mompesson was charged with corruption, found
guilty, fined, stripped of his knighthood and sentenced to life imprisonment.
But he fled to France and so the Lords substituted banishment for the
prison sentence. Gradually, as noted earlier, sentences became limited to
removal from office.