House of Commons Procedure and Practice
Edited by Robert Marleau and Camille Montpetit
2000 EditionMore information …
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5. Parliamentary Procedure

Speakers’ Rulings

The Speaker has been duty-bound to decide all questions of procedure since representative assemblies were first established in the colonies which were to form Canada. [67]  Just as case law (the body of judge-made law) is an important part of the common-law system, rulings (the body of Speaker-made parliamentary law) are an important part of our parliamentary system. Over the years, the sum total of rulings from Speakers has helped shape the way in which the House conducts its business. [68] Successive Speakers have been called upon to decide how rules should apply and, through rulings, have either settled issues or encouraged the House, [69]  the Government, [70]  or the Board of Internal Economy [71]  to take steps to resolve them. Prior to 1965, the rulings of Speakers were subject to an appeal and could be overturned by the House; [72] since then, Members have not been allowed to question a decision of the Chair. [73] 

A distinction must be made between “rulings” and “statements” made by the Speaker. Rulings deal with the procedural acceptability of some matter before the House which, unless otherwise specified, serve as precedents to govern future proceedings. They, more often than not, address procedural issues raised on a point of order or a question of privilege and seek to give directions to the House. Statements, on the other hand, seek to convey information or clarification to Members of the House. [74] 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. [75]  Speaker Fraser summed up the fine balancing act that is often involved in adapting old rules to new situations: “When interpreting the rules of procedure, the Speaker must take account not only of their letter but of their spirit and be guided by the most basic rule of all, that of common sense.” [76] 

In arriving at a decision on a procedural point, the Speaker may draw on a full range of procedural information and examine the precedents to determine how the Standing Orders have been applied and interpreted in the past. The Standing Orders, though a vital reference, constitute a comparatively small part of the much larger body of House of Commons procedure and practice that the Speaker will consult in preparing a ruling. The primary records of the House, the Journals and Debates, are the richest repository of information on precedents, practices and usages as well as being the most reliable. [77]  Finally, while Speakers must take the Constitution and statutes into account when preparing a ruling, numerous Speakers have explained that it is not up to the Speaker to rule on the “constitutionality” or “legality” of measures before the House. [78] 

While good procedure requires that there be consistency in the interpretation of practice and in the application of the Standing Orders, [79]  Speakers have never shied away from creating new precedents when faced with an apparent contradiction between Standing Orders and contemporary values. In this way, Speakers have declared past rules or Standing Orders to be redundant [80]  and have often invited the House to ponder the consequences of things such as new technologies on Members’ privileges. [81] 

In arriving at a decision, Speakers will also review cornerstone events of the past, known as precedents, which may be useful in applying to a new situation. Precedent has been defined as “a previous decision by the Chair, or a well-established procedure or usage which serves as an authority or guide when a similar point or circumstance arises in Parliament”. [82]  Determining what is or is not a precedent is not always straightforward. Speaker Fraser once said that “a precedent is something that happened once upon a time and that everyone decided to follow … in legal terms, it is usually the consequence of a decision made after argument has been proffered to the Chair […] on a certain point”. [83]  The mere occurrence of an event does not make it a precedent, and Speakers have on occasion ruled that a special circumstance justifies a deviation from a known precedent. [84] 

At times, the Speaker will 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. 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.

While previous rulings and statements always serve as important and reliable guides, and while Speakers invariably rely on the decisions of their predecessors, every new situation is different and is examined on its own merits. A great many practices remain uncodified, although some are frequently defined and made explicit in Speakers’ rulings and statements.

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