The proceedings of the House of Commons are regulated chiefly by the Standing Orders, the written rules of the House, the practices and traditions that have developed in Canada and through the interpretation of the rules and traditions made by the Speaker in decisions or rulings from the Chair.
While previous rulings and statements always serve as important and reliable guides, and while Speakers invariably rely on the decisions of their predecessors, every situation is different and is examined on its own merits.
A distinction must be made between “rulings” and “statements” made by the Speaker. Rulings deal with the procedural acceptability of a matter before the House, which, unless otherwise specified, serve as precedents to govern future proceedings. Statements, on the other hand, seek to convey information or clarification to Members of the House. Not every statement is a ruling, and Speakers have often explicitly stated that certain procedures, although permitted in certain circumstances, should not be interpreted as precedents.
The Speaker rules on points of order and questions of privilege as they occur and not in anticipation. Prior to 1965, the rulings of Speakers were subject to an appeal and could be overturned by the House; since then, Members have not been allowed to question a decision of the Chair.
In making a ruling, the Speaker draws on a full range of procedural information and examines the precedents to determine how the Standing Orders have been applied and interpreted in the past.
The Speaker may be called upon to deal with situations not provided for in the Standing Orders, and may turn to parliamentary practice or tradition in other jurisdictions, both in Canada and in other countries.
While good procedure requires that there be consistency in the interpretation of practice and in the application of the Standing Orders, Speakers are sometimes called upon to create new precedents when faced with an apparent contradiction between the Standing Orders and contemporary values. Accordingly, Speakers have declared past rules to be redundant and have invited the House to ponder the consequences of changing circumstances, such as the effect of new technologies on Members’ privileges.
In other cases, Speakers may choose to rule in accordance with past practice but acknowledge that circumstances have changed, and suggest that the House may wish to address the matter by changing its rules.
The Speaker will often allow Members to address the issue raised to give them an opportunity to present facts that might help shed some light on the case at hand. In such cases, the Speaker will often reserve his or her decision in order that he or she may reflect on the matter, request that further research be undertaken or seek further advice on the questions being raised. At other times, a ruling will be made immediately without Members’ intervention. It is left to the Speaker to determine what method he or she will use.
All Speakers base their rulings on established practice; however, in many cases, their rulings build upon past precedent, and in some cases their decisions improve or clarify best practices.