A parliamentary procedural device called an “Adjournment Motion” was in the news recently. I have been asked on this occasion as well as in the past when the issue arose, usually in controversial political circumstances, what it is all about. It is a rule, called a Standing Order, of the National Assembly which allows a member at the beginning of a Sitting to move an “adjournment of the Assembly for the purpose of discussing a definite matter of urgent public importance.” If allowed by the Speaker, the business of the National Assembly is interrupted at a particular stage to discuss the matter. Because of this potent effect of the rule, disrupting the nation’s legislative business, its cautious application is mandated by the rules which have grown up around its application.
Parliamentary practice consists of rules, conventions and precedents. Our own rules provide that where they are silent the usage and practice of the House of Commons of Great Britain shall apply. For this reason Speakers of the Guyana National Assembly have relied heavily on Erskine May’s Parliamentary Practice, the best known text on parliamentary procedure in Great Britain, when confronted with issues of procedure for which there is no Guyana rule or precedent. I have expanded the range of authorities and frequently consult or cite Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and Indian parliamentary practice. Guyana’s precedents are available on some matters but are not always adequate and, in any event, do not attract the confidence of a significant number of parliamentarians. For this and other reasons I have an established practice of not always relying on them only, of looking far and wide for justification for my rulings and of giving them in writing so that a record of precedents, justified by authorities from other Commonwealth parliaments, can be built for the future. I have given two written rulings on adjournment motions analyzing some of the basic rules and principles. I have also caused material to be distributed to members of parliament outlining the basic rules and practices which apply.
The rule is defined by the following words – ‘definite,’ ‘urgent,’ ‘public’ and ‘importance.’ Around each of these words has grown up a wide body of precedent.
I cannot go into an extensive discussion on the meaning of these words in this short article but I will touch on the most important. ‘Definite’ means a single specific matter such as a hurricane, a serious flood affecting large numbers of people or a large terrorist event. It certainly does not contemplate a series of allegations on a variety of matters such as emanating from the current US court case.
Several other factors need to be satisfied. One is that the motion is not allowed when the facts are in dispute. Lawyers know that by virtue of the fact that the issues are raised in evidence in a pending matter they are in dispute. Also some of them have been denied in local press reports. Under these circumstances alone, evidence given in a court in a foreign country in a pending case on a variety of issues can hardly qualify.
‘Urgent’ means that the matter must be of recent occurrence. Mr. Robert Corbin, who moved the Adjournment Motion, said on Capitol News on August 5 that: “Nothing coming out of the US court is new. The Police had this information a long time ago.” Even if the information on old matters are new, Erskine May states: “The fact that new information has been received regarding a matter that has been continuing for some time does not in itself make that matter one of urgency.” Thus the issues, by Mr. Corbin’s own admission, do not qualify.
Assuming the matter is of public importance, it involves a trial in a foreign court. It might not be sub judice in Guyana but it is in the US and commonsense dictates that the trial should be concluded before any such motion is considered. Unfortunately, an Adjournment Motion is usually moved in circumstances of intense political dispute. Debate in connection with allowing the Adjournment Motion is then subsumed by political passions.
Because of the rigid rules which have grown up in relation to Adjournment Motions, many Parliaments, including Guyana’s, have amended their Standing Orders to mitigate its effects.
A member can table a special three day motion to which special rules apply. It requires only three days notice as opposed to the normal fourteen days. Had this motion been tabled, instead of the request for an Adjournment Motion, or immediately after it was disallowed, it would have qualified for debate when the National Assembly met on Tuesday August 3 or on Thursday August 6. No one can therefore argue with any justification that, because of the disallowance of the Adjournment Motion, the National Assembly was deprived of the possibility of debating the issues arising in the court case in New York, if they were creatively introduced to avoid objection on the ground that they arose in a pending trial.
The moving of an Adjournment Motion involves the mover standing up and doing so at the beginning stages of the Sitting. This is the top of the news cycle and the press table and public gallery are full and attentive. This provides a great opportunity for press attention and allows a degree of anticipation that would not be available with the mere tabling of a three day or any other motion, especially where the Speaker disallows the application. Hence the attachment to the Adjournment Motion as a reliable political instrument to enhance dramatic display in times of sudden political dispute over a major issue.