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Witnesses Appearing Before a Committee

A committee may wish to hear testimony from private individuals, representatives of groups, or public officials concerning the matter that it is studying.

Witness selection may be carried out in a number of different ways. Normally, individual committee members and the committee’s research analysts propose lists of witnesses. The committee may also invite potential witnesses to indicate their interest in appearing. The selection is often delegated to the subcommittee on agenda and procedure, subject to ratification by the full committee.

Groups or individuals who are aware of an upcoming committee study may also indicate their interest in appearing without any solicitation on the part of the committee.

Finally, when holding meetings in the form of “town halls”, committees often reserve a period of time when those in the audience are given an opportunity to ask questions or make brief comments without having formally arranged for their appearance in advance.

It is the responsibility of the committee to determine which witnesses it will hear. Practical considerations, such as the length of time allocated for a study, limit the number of witnesses the committee will be able to accommodate. While any member of a committee may propose witnesses, the committee makes the final decision as to who will be heard.

Witnesses are ordinarily reimbursed for reasonable travel expenses that they have incurred in order to appear before the committee.

Summoning Witnesses

In the vast majority of cases, committees are able to obtain the evidence they seek by inviting witnesses to appear before them. A committee may also choose to summon a witness by adopting a motion to that effect. Committees usually summon witnesses only in cases where witnesses have declined a prior invitation to appear. If a proposed witness fails to appear when summoned, the committee may report the fact to the House. The House then takes any action it deems appropriate.

Committees are not empowered to summon Members of the House of Commons or Senators. Should a Member refuse to testify when requested to do so by a committee, the committee may report this refusal to the House, which will then decide what action, if any, is necessary. While Senators may appear before House committees voluntarily, their attendance cannot be compelled. If a committee wishes a formal request to be made for a Senator to appear, it must seek the agreement of the House. If the House agrees with the committee, it sends a message to the Senate requesting that the Senator appear before the Committee.

Ministers of the Crown are often invited to appear before committees during subject matter studies as well as studies on legislation and the main or supplementary estimates. Ministers cannot be summoned to appear, and, as is the case during Oral Questions, they cannot be forced to answer questions or reveal information that would threaten national security or breach Cabinet secrecy.

Swearing-in of Witnesses

A witness appearing before a committee may be required to take an oath or make a solemn affirmation; however, under normal circumstances, witnesses are not sworn in. The decision as to the swearing-in of witnesses is entirely at the discretion of the committee. A witness who refuses to be sworn in might face a charge of contempt. Likewise, the refusal to answer questions or failure to reply truthfully may give rise to a charge of contempt of the House, whether the witness has been sworn in or not. In addition, witnesses who lie under oath may be charged with perjury.

Presentation to the Committee

Witnesses appearing before committees are usually asked to make a brief opening statement, summarizing their views or the views of the organization they represent, on the subject of the committee’s inquiry. Following this opening statement, there is a period for questioning. Any member of the committee may pose questions to the witnesses. The Chair may, on occasion, also participate in the questioning of witnesses. Other Members of the House in attendance at committee meetings may also be permitted to pose questions, pursuant to Standing Order 119.

Many committees have agreed to limitations on the amount of time available to each committee member during the time set aside for questioning. This period includes time limits for the witnesses to respond. Many committees have also agreed to the order in which committee members will be recognized to ask questions. In all cases, the Chair directs the questioning and recognizes committee members in sequence.

Submitting Briefs

Witnesses appearing before committees may also submit written briefs containing detailed information. The committee clerk, when transmitting the committee’s invitation, may specify whether the witness is expected to prepare a brief.

Groups and individuals who are not invited to appear as witnesses may also submit briefs.

Guidelines for preparing a submission for a Standing Committee are available on the House of Commons website .

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