House of Commons Procedure and Practice
Edited by Robert Marleau and Camille Montpetit
2000 EditionMore information …
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Historical Perspective

While the right of the citizen to petition Parliament for redress of a grievance is frequently referred to as fundamental, or as a fundamental principle of the constitution, [3]  the constitution is in fact silent on the matter. The recognition of this right is, however, well entrenched, based as it is on centuries-old tradition and established precedent.

Petitioning the Crown (and later Parliament) for redress of a grievance originated in the time of the thirteenth-century monarch Edward I. Petitioners had recourse to the Crown’s prerogative power, which was above the law. Petitions granted to individuals and communities were in the nature of private laws; those granted to the nation as a whole made public laws.

In medieval times, before Parliament had assumed its present constitution and when its judicial and legislative functions were as yet undefined, Receivers and Triers of petitions appointed by the Crown travelled the country to hear the complaints of the people. Certain matters would be referred to local courts by the Triers, but others would be found appropriate for consideration by the High Court of Parliament.

As Parliament evolved from a primarily judicial to a predominantly legislative body with its judicial functions taken over by the courts, the character of petitions changed. By the end of the fourteenth century, legislative remedy was sought by individuals and corporations who petitioned Parliament or the House of Commons. At the same time, petitions from the Commons to the Crown — these being of a general nature and expressing national grievances — became frequent. The British Parliament’s first legislative acts occurred with the Commons petitioning the King for certain amendments to the law. (This was the precursor to legislation by bill, as later the Commons assumed the task of drafting the desired statute which could then be accepted or rejected — but not amended — by the Crown.) The seventeenth century saw the development of what may be considered the “modern” form of petition — addressed to Parliament, drawn up in a prescribed manner, usually dealing with public grievances. [4] 

In Canada, provisions for petitions (long a feature of the pre-Confederation legislative assemblies) have always been part of the written rules of the House. [5]  The rules adopted in 1867 were somewhat expanded in 1910, and operated without substantial modification for some 76 years. [6]  However, starting in the immediate post-Confederation period, an extensive body of practice began to build, resulting in a collection of form and content requirements which were not codified in the Standing Orders but which had to be met in order for a petition to be acceptable to the House.

In the early and mid-1980s, the resurgence in the use of petitions led to a situation in which the presentation of petitions occupied large amounts of the time of the House, sometimes to the exclusion of other business. [7]  As well, the Chair was at times called upon to intervene or rule on matters relating to the admissibility of petitions and the manner of their presentation. [8]  As a consequence, the Special Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons (the McGrath Committee) made several recommendations intended to clarify the rules relating to petitions, to promote increased uniformity in their presentation, to ensure their receivability as to content and to provide guidelines as to form and the petitioners’ signatures. [9]  In 1986, the House adopted amendments to the Standing Orders based on these recommendations. [10] 

The most significant of the changes adopted in 1986 was the requirement for certification of petitions by the Clerk of Petitions prior to their presentation in the House. Also included were a number of requirements, some previously uncodified but well established by precedent and practice, to be met in order for petitions to be certified correct as to their form and content (for example, petitions must contain a prayer requesting action, must be respectful in tone and must bear original signatures). Guidelines issued by the Speaker made reference to these and to other established practices concerning the presentation of petitions during Routine Proceedings. [11]  A new rule provided for mandatory government replies to petitions.

Several changes were adopted in 1987, in particular a new requirement that signatories to petitions must include their addresses. [12]  As well, the number and sequence of Routine Proceedings rubrics was revised so that “Presenting Petitions”, formerly the fifth of nine items, became the ninth of ten. [13]  In 1991, a further amendment set a limit of 15 minutes on the time provided for the presentation of petitions during the daily routine of business. [14]  An amendment adopted in 1994 provided that the original petitions be transmitted to the Ministry (Privy Council Office) and that government responses to petitions may be tabled by depositing them with the Clerk of the House. [15] 

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