Robert's Rules: Getting Comfortable with Parliamentary Procedure

Parliamentary procedure refers to the practices used in meetings to keep things orderly and give everybody a fair chance to be heard for at least as long as it takes for everybody to realize that nothing new is being said and a large majority is ready to make a decision and get on with other business. Parliamentary procedure really goes a lot further than that, but you've probably guessed as much. It takes a book or two to really cover the subject. You're on your way, though, and you'll have a much better understanding of the process after you've worked through some concrete examples like the ones in this book.

General parliamentary law

Parliamentary procedure is based on parliamentary law. Specifically, parliamentary procedure is the parliamentary law you follow in your organization along with any special rules of order you make just for your group.

The broad concept of parliamentary law, although not actually law in the sense of statutes and jurisprudence, is the body of accepted rules and practices of deliberative assemblies of all types and sizes.

If you've come together as a loosely knit group of friends (or enemies), then the chances are good that you follow some rules even if you haven't written them down and given them a name, such as "Only one person speaks at a time," "Don't interrupt somebody when they're talking," or "Let's decide what to do about this before we go on to something else."

The most basic rules about interacting with others are the basis of what you may hear referred to as the common parliamentary law. That's a collection of rules and customs, many of which you know, understand, and use every day, even though you never really think about them much.

Parliamentary law isn't statutory law. It's just the body of rules that, written or unwritten, we use when we're assembled and discussing our business.

Principles of parliamentary law

Robert's Rules is generally regarded as the codification (or systematic arrangement) of general parliamentary law. Robert's Rules is written to be a concise but thorough treatment of the vast amount of interrelated information on parliamentary law.

The rules in Robert's Rules are soundly based in principles of parliamentary law that take into account the rights of the majority, the minority, the individual, any absent members, and the collective rights of all these groups.

Fundamental principles

One fundamental principle of parliamentary law is that a deliberative assembly is an autonomous body that enjoys the freedom to conduct its business in accordance with its own provisions for the rights of its members and itself as an assembly. It is free to enact its own rules, choose its leadership, delegate to its leadership all or part of its authority, and retain whatever control over its business that it wishes.

Two other principles are so close to the heart of things that Robert's Rules also terms them fundamental principles of parliamentary law. The rules that embody these principles can never be suspended. The only way to avoid having these rules apply to your group is to provide differently in your bylaws. Those fundamental principles are as follows:

  • The right to vote is limited to the members who are present in a meeting during the time a vote is actually taken. Therefore, even if the vote is unanimous,

• Rules can't be suspended to give a right to vote to a nonmember.

• Cumulative voting is prohibited.

• Absentee voting is prohibited.

  • Only one motion can be considered at a time. (You can, however, have several questions pending at one time.)

Other principles of parliamentary law

In addition to the etched-in-stone fundamental principles, parliamentary law includes the following general principles:

  • The majority rules, but only after providing for the minority to be heard. The only way to keep a member from being heard is by a two-thirds vote of the entire group to stop debate.
  • Even though it's not always wise for them to do so, every person or minority faction has the right to take all legal measures to have their position adopted by the group. These measures, however, can't be taken in such a manner as to be disruptive to the peace of the entire group.
  • A higher voting threshold is required to change something than to adopt it in the first place. This requirement protects against the instability of changing rules that can develop easily with minor shifts in attendance from meeting to meeting.
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