Under the Constitution Act, 1867, a quorum of 20 Members (including the Speaker) is required “to constitute a meeting of the House for the exercise of its powers”,5 a requirement reiterated in the Standing Orders.6 The attendance of any 20 Members is sufficient for quorum, regardless of their party affiliations or whether they are in government or in opposition, as affirmed by the Deputy Speaker of the House in 1998:

The count is for the minimum number of 20 Members. If 20 Members are present the debate resumes. The Speaker is disinterested as to whether it is all government members, all opposition members or a mixture of Members from both sides forming the quorum. As such the Speaker is not in a position to tell Members from either side of the House who should be in his or her place or how many Members should be available for any debate.7

Quorum has remained unchanged at 20 since Confederation, despite several attempts to increase it,8 as attendance at the sittings of the House is only one of many duties and demands on Members’ time. Party Whips have traditionally been responsible, through the use of roster systems, for ensuring that the required number of Members is present to maintain quorum.

Quorum Before a Sitting Begins

At the hour when the House is scheduled to meet, a count of the House is taken by the Speaker. If fewer than 20 Members are present, the Speaker may adjourn the House until the next sitting day.9 The Speaker may take such an initiative only until the moment when the House is called to order;10 once the sitting has begun, “control over the competence of the House is transferred from the Speaker to the House itself … the Speaker has no right to close a sitting at his own discretion”11. There are no known instances of this having happened at the beginning of a sitting and, in practice, the bells summoning Members to the House at the start of a sitting are not silenced until a quorum is present, often some minutes after the appointed meeting time.12 On Wednesdays, the practice is to start the bells a few minutes before the stated hour of meeting so that the prayer can be read and the national anthem sung first without taking time away from Statements by Members and Oral Questions.13

Quorum During a Sitting

During a sitting, any Member may draw the attention of the Speaker to a lack of quorum and request a “count” of the Members present, even while another Member is speaking. If a quorum is obviously present, the Speaker may simply announce the fact and dispense with a count; the House then returns to its business. If there is some doubt as to there being a quorum, a count is made by the Speaker and, if a quorum is present, business continues.14 However, if there is no quorum at the first count, the bells are ordered to sound for no longer than 15 minutes.15 Within that time period, if a second count determines that a quorum is present, the Speaker orders the bells silenced and the House proceeds with the business before it.16 If, at the end of the 15 minutes, a second count reveals that there is still no quorum, the Speaker adjourns the House until the next sitting day, and the names of the Members present are recorded in the Journals.17

The quorum in a Committee of the Whole is likewise 20 Members. If a Member notices that quorum is not present in a Committee of the Whole and raises the matter, the Chair counts the Members. If indeed there is not a quorum, the Committee rises and the House resumes its sitting.18 Following a report from the Chair of the Committee to this effect, the Speaker counts the Members present. If there is no quorum, the bells are rung for a maximum of 15 minutes.

Usually, quorum is quickly restored and this permits the House to proceed with the business before it.19 However, should the House adjourn for lack of quorum, any Order of the Day under consideration at the time, with the exception of non-votable items of Private Members’ Business, retains its precedence on the Order Paper for the next sitting.20 The lack of quorum means only that the House adjourns for the day.

A number of practices govern quorum calls: a Member who calls quorum need not remain in the House;21 a Member who calls quorum while speaking and who subsequently leaves the House may resume speaking, upon returning after a count that confirms quorum;22 Members need not be in their assigned seats in order to be counted;23 no point of order or question of privilege will be considered by the Chair while the count is taking place;24 and the Chair will not consider a quorum call once a question has been put.25

When the Speaker adjourns the House for want of quorum, either at the start of a sitting or while it is under way, the Members who are present are asked to come to the Table and sign the scroll in order that their names may be recorded in the Journals. Only the names of those Members counted ought, in principle, to appear in the scroll, although in practice this has not always been the case, given that Members are free to enter or leave the Chamber during and after a count. The list of Members entered in the Journals may consequently exceed 20 names.26 Thus, to adjourn the House, it is the count which is decisive, not the list of scrolled names.27

Lack of Quorum During Divisions

During a recorded division, if the Speaker’s attention is drawn to the fact that the sum of the votes and the number of Members present who did not vote (including the Speaker) is less than 20, then the question remains undecided and the usual quorum procedure is triggered. If no objection is raised at the time, the result of the vote is read to the House; the Speaker simply confirms the result, and business proceeds as though there were a quorum.28

Quorum when the Attendance of the House Is Requested in the Senate

A quorum is deemed to exist regardless of the number of Members actually in attendance whenever a message is received asking for the attendance of the House in the Senate.29 The constitutional requirement for a quorum of 20 Members does not apply when the House is summoned to the Senate, since the House is not exercising any of its powers in responding to the message; it is simply acting as a witness to the proceedings about to take place in the Upper Chamber.

The Usher of the Black Rod, by prior informal arrangements between the two chambers, arrives at times when the House is sitting, and thus when a quorum is likely to be present, to deliver most messages that require the attendance of the House in the Senate Chamber. The Speaker receives the message as soon as it arrives and leads the House to the Senate.30 However, there are occasions during periods when the House stands adjourned when the House’s attendance in the Senate is required for Royal Assent ceremonies. In such cases, the Speaker may, at the request of the government, cause the House to meet at an appointed hour close to the time when the attendance of the House in the Senate will be desired.31 When the Usher of the Black Rod arrives, the Speaker receives the message and proceeds to the Senate with any Members then present (often fewer than a quorum). After returning from the Royal Assent ceremony in the Upper Chamber, the House once again stands adjourned.