When Rules Conflict: Robert's Rules for Precedence

When you're using Robert's Rules to deal with different types of rules, you need to know when to follow which rule. Among the more fundamental rules, then, are those that define the order of precedence of the different rules that an organization creates:

  • Charter: The charter, if you have one, reigns supreme. Nothing except a judge or the law of the land supersedes it. Fortunately, a charter is usually pretty succinct and operates like a franchise. It's a grant of authority by the state (if your group is incorporated) or a superior organization (if your group is a constituent unit of a larger body). A charter usually lists the few conditions under which you must operate, but it usually provides for your organization to be subject to bylaws specifically tailored to your organization but which may not conflict with provisions of the charter.

  • Bylaws: Even though the bylaws contain the most important single set of rules for defining your organization and its governance, the content of the bylaws remains binding and enforceable only to the extent it doesn't conflict with your charter. If your group is not incorporated or not subject to a charter, then the bylaws are the highest-ranking rules of your organization. No matter what, no rules of order or standing rules can ever be enforced if they conflict in any way with your bylaws.

    Because bylaws define specific characteristics of the organization itself — including (in most cases) which parliamentary authority will be used by the organization — bylaws are of such importance that they can't be changed without previous notice and the consent of a large majority of your members.

  • Special rules of order and standing rules: Special rules of order and standing rules have completely different applications and uses, but they rank together as immediately subordinate to bylaws because they have one particular thing in common: They contain individual rules (each of which is usually adopted separately from the other rules in the class) based on the specific need of the organization to accomplish a specific purpose for which the rule is adopted.

  • Robert's Rules (parliamentary authority): Robert's Rules is a parliamentary manual, and if your organization has adopted it as your parliamentary authority, then Robert's Rules is binding on your group. But it's binding only to the extent that it isn't in conflict with the charter, bylaws, special rules of order, or standing rules.

  • Custom: Custom is basically procedures that aren't written anywhere but are followed in actual practice just as if they were written rules.

    Custom is as binding as actual rules with one exception: If a written rule exists to the contrary, even in the parliamentary authority, then the custom must yield as soon as the conflict is pointed out to the membership through a point of order. The only way around this exception is if a special rule of order is adopted to place the custom formally in the body of written rules.

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