Bribery (from the O. Fr. briberie, begging or vagrancy, bribe, Mid. Lat. briba, signifying a piece of bread given to beggars; the Eng. "bribe" has passed through the meanings of alms, blackmail and extortion, to gifts received or given in order to influence corruptly). The public offence of bribery may be defined as the offering or giving of payment in some shape or form that it may be a motive in the performance of functions for which the proper motive ought to be a conscientious sense of duty. When this is superseded by the sordid impulses created by the bribe, a person is said to be corrupted, and thus corruption is a term sometimes held equivalent to bribery. The offence may be divided into two great classes - the one where a person invested with power is induced by payment to use it unjustly; the other, where power is obtained by purchasing the suffrages of those who can impart it. It is a natural propensity, removable only by civilization or some powerful counteracting influence, to feel that every element of power is to be employed as much as possible for the owner's own behoof, and that its benefits should be conferred not on those who best deserve them, but on those who will pay most for them. Hence judicial corruption is an inveterate vice of imperfect civilization.
There is, perhaps no other crime on which the force of law, if unaided by public opinion and morals, can have so little influence; for in other crimes, such as violence or fraud, there is generally some person immediately injured by the act, who can give his aid in the detection of the offender, but in the perpetration of the offence of bribery all the immediate parties obtain what they desire, and are satisfied.
The purification of the bench from judicial bribery has been gradual in most of the European countries. In France it received an impulse in the 16th century from the high-minded chancellor, Michel de L'Hôpital. In England judicial corruption has been a crime of remarkable rarity. Indeed, with the exception of a statute of 1384 (repealed by the Statute Law Revision Act 1881) there has been no legislation relating to judicial bribery. The earliest recorded case was that of Sir William Thorpe, who in 1351 was fined and removed from office for accepting bribes. Other celebrated cases were those of Michael de la Pole, chancellor of England, in 1387; Lord Chancellor Bacon in 1621; Lionel Cranfield, earl of Middlesex, in 1624; and Sir Thomas Parker, 1st earl of Macclesfield, in 1725. In Scotland for some years after the Revolution the bench was not without a suspicion of interested partiality; but since the beginning of the 19th century, at least, there has been in all parts of the empire a perfect reliance on its purity. The same may be said of the higher class of ministerial officers.
There is no doubt that in the period from the Revolution to the end of Queen Anne's reign, when a speaker of the House of Commons was expelled for bribery, and the great Marlborough could not clear his character from pecuniary dishonesty, there was much corruption in the highest official quarters. The level of the offence of official bribery has gradually descended, until it has become an extremely rare thing for the humbler officers connected with the revenue to be charged with it. It has had a more lingering existence with those who, because their power is more of a constitutional than an official character, have been deemed less responsible to the public. During Walpole's administration there is no doubt that members of parliament were paid in cash for votes; and the memorable saying, that every man has his price, has been preserved as a characteristic indication of his method of government. One of the forms in which administrative corruption is most difficult of eradication is the appointment to office.
It is sometimes maintained that the purity which characterizes the administration of justice is here unattainable, because in giving a judgment there is but one form in which it can be justly given, but when an office has to be filled many people may be equally fitted for it, and personal motives must influence a choice. It very rarely happens, however, that direct bribery is supposed to influence such appointments. It does not appear that bribery was conspicuous in England until, in the early part of the 18th century, constituencies had thrown off the feudal dependence which lingered among them; and, indeed, it is often said, that bribery is essentially the defect of a free people, since it is the sale of that which is taken from others without payment.
In English law bribery of a privy councillor or a juryman (see Embracery) is punishable as a misdemeanour, as is the taking of a bribe by any judicial or ministerial officer. The buying and selling of public offices is also regarded at common law as a form of bribery. By the Customs Consolidation Act 1876, any officer in the customs service is liable to instant dismissal and a penalty of £500 for taking a bribe, and any person offering or promising a bribe or reward to an officer to neglect his duty or conceal or connive at any act by which the customs may be evaded shall forfeit the sum of £200. Under the Inland Revenue Regulations Act 1890, the bribery of commissioners, collectors, officers or other persons employed in relation to the Inland Revenue involves a fine of £500. The Merchant Shipping Act 1894, ss. 112 and 398, makes provision for certain offences in the nature of bribery. Bribery is, by the Extradition Act 1906, an extraditable offence. Administrative corruption was dealt with in the Public Bodies' Corrupt Practices Act 1889. The public bodies concerned are county councils, town or borough councils, boards, commissioners, select vestries and other bodies having local government, public health or poor law powers, and having for those purposes to administer rates raised under public general acts.
The giving or receiving, promising, offering, soliciting or agreeing to receive any gift, fee, loan or advantage by any person as an inducement for any act or forbearance by a member, officer or servant of a public body in regard to the affairs of that body is made a misdemeanour in England and Ireland and a crime and offence in Scotland. Prosecution under the act requires the consent of the attorney or solicitor-general in England or Ireland and of the lord advocate in Scotland. Conviction renders liable to imprisonment with or without hard labour for a term not exceeding two years, and to a fine not exceeding £500, in addition to or in lieu of imprisonment. The offender may also be ordered to pay to the public body concerned any bribe received by him; he may be adjudged incapable for seven years of holding public office, i.e. the position of member, officer or servant of a public body; and if already an officer or servant, besides forfeiting his place, he is liable at the discretion of the court to forfeit his right to compensation or pension. On a second conviction he may be adjudged forever incapable of holding public office, and for seven years incapable of being registered or of voting as a parliamentary elector, or as an elector of members of a public body.
An offence under the act may be prosecuted and punished under any other act applicable thereto, or at common law; but no person is to be punished twice for the same offence. Bribery at political elections was at common law punishable by indictment or information, but numerous statutes have been passed dealing with it as a "corrupt practice." In this sense, the word is elastic in meaning and may embrace any method of corruptly influencing another for the purpose of securing his vote (see Corrupt Practices). Bribery at elections of fellows, scholars, officers and other persons in colleges, cathedral and collegiate churches, hospitals and other societies was prohibited in 1588-1589 by statute (31 Eliz. c. 6). If a member receives any money, fee, reward or other profit for giving his vote in favour of any candidate, he forfeits his own place; if for any such consideration he resigns to make room for a candidate, he forfeits double the amount of the bribe, and the candidate by or on whose behalf a bribe is given or promised is incapable of being elected on that occasion. The act is to be read at every election of fellows, etc., under a penalty of £40 in case of default.
By the same act any person for corrupt consideration presenting, instituting or inducting to an ecclesiastical benefice or dignity forfeits two years' value of the benefice or dignity; the corrupt presentation is void, and the right to present lapses for that turn to the crown, and the corrupt presentee is disabled from thereafter holding the same benefice or dignity; a corrupt institution or induction is void, and the patron may present. For a corrupt resignation or exchange of a benefice the giver and taker of a bribe forfeit each double the amount of the bribe. Any person corruptly procuring the ordaining of ministers or granting of licenses to preach forfeits £40, and the person so ordained forfeits £10 and for seven years is incapacitated from holding any ecclesiastical benefice or promotion.
In the United States the offence of bribery is very severely dealt with. In many states, bribery or the attempt to bribe is made a felony, and is punishable with varying terms of imprisonment, in some jurisdictions it may be with a period not exceeding ten years. The offence of bribery at elections is dealt with on much the same lines as in England, voiding the election and disqualifying the offender from holding any office.
Bribery may also take the form of a secret commission (q.v.), a profit made by an agent, in the course of his employment, without the knowledge of his principal.