Inside Chambers
Inside Chambers

Parliament of the country is the repository of the sovereign will of the people, and its successful functioning is a joint responsibility of both the Government and the Opposition.
Pratibha Patil - Indian politician

Erskine May at the Speakers Conference describes the functions of the Speaker of the House of Commons in Britain as follows:-Para 4.19-The Speaker of the House of Commons is the representative of the House itself in its powers, proceedings and dignity. The Speaker’s rank is defined by the Order in Council of May 30, 1919, in which it is provided that upon all occasions and in all meetings, except where otherwise provided by Act of Parliament, the Speaker shall have, hold and enjoy place, pre-eminence and precedence immediately after the Lord President of the Council. Until this time, the Speaker had taken precedence of all commoners, both by ancient custom and by legislative declaration.

The Speaker’s functions fall into three main categories. First, the Speaker is the spokesperson or representative of the House in its relations with the Crown, the House of Lords and other authorities and persons outside Parliament. Second, the Speaker presides over the debates of the House of Commons and enforces the observance of all rules for preserving order in its proceedings. Third, the Speaker has administrative responsibilities, including Chairing the House of Commons Commission (para 6-2). In carrying out these duties, the Speaker is assisted by a small personal staff (see para 6-20).

The current Speaker of the Parliament is Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, in office since August 20, 2020. The Speaker fulfills a number of important functions in relation to the operation of the House, which is based upon the British Westminster Parliamentary system. In 1931, under the Donoughmore Constitution, the State Council of Ceylon was established and in it the first office of a Speaker of a legislative body was created as the Speaker of State Council.

In 1947, according to the recommendations of the Soulbury Commission the State Council was dissolved and a Parliament was established in the Westminster model with an Upper House, the Senate and the House of Representatives. While the head of the President of the Senate became the head of the Senate, the Speaker of the House of Representatives became the presiding officer of the House of Representatives. The office of the Speaker, as it exists now, was established in 1947, with the opening of the first Parliament of Ceylon on February 4, 1948, granting of Independence and the establishment of the Dominion of Ceylon.

Speaker’s function

The Speaker presides over the House’s debates, determining which members may speak. The Speaker is also responsible for maintaining order during debate, and may punish members who break the rules of the House. The Speaker remains strictly non-partisan, and renounces all affiliation with his or her former political party when taking office for the duration of his term. The Speaker does not take part in debate or vote (except to break ties). Apart from duties relating to presiding over the House, the Speaker also performs administrative and procedural functions, and remains a constituency Member of Parliament (MP). The Speaker would be Chairman of the Constitutional Council. The Speaker may accept the resignation of the President. The Chief Justice in consultation with the Speaker may determine that the President is temporarily unable to exercise, perform and discharge the powers, duties and functions and appoint the Prime Minister as acting President.

As per the Article 64 of the Constitution when Parliament first meets after a general election, it will elect three members to serve as the Speaker, Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Committees (known simply as the Deputy Speaker) and the Deputy Chairman of Committees. The Speaker would vacate his office only if he tenders his resignation to the President or ceases to be a Member of Parliament or when Parliament dissolved.

The Speaker is assisted by two deputies, all of whom are elected by the House. These are Deputy Speaker and the Deputy Chairman of Committees. In the absence of the Speaker, the Deputy Speaker or in their absence the Deputy Chairman of Committees, shall preside at sittings of Parliament. If none of them is present, a Member elected by Parliament for the sitting shall preside at the sitting of Parliament. The Speaker’s official residence is presently in Kotte.

Third highest-ranking official

The Speaker is the third highest-ranking official in Sri Lanka. At present, the Speaker ranks in the order of precedence after the President and Prime Minister. From 1948 to 1971 (when the Senate was abolished) the Speaker ranked fifth in the precedence after the Governor General, the Prime Minister, the Chief Justice and the President of the Senate. From 1971 to 1978, the Speaker ranked fourth in the precedence after the Governor General/President, the Prime Minister and the Chief Justice. After the second amendment to the Republican Constitution in 1978, in which the Speaker was placed second in the Presidential line of succession; the Speaker gained his current position in the order of precedence.

In 2016, the Speaker received a salary of Rs. 68,500 per month and other entitlements of a Member of Parliament. In addition, the Speaker can use the Speakers Residence and is entitled to transport and security arranged by the Parliamentary Secretariat. At each Sitting of Parliament, the Speaker (or the presiding officer) travels into the Chamber in procession, after the Sergeant-at-Arms carrying the ceremonial mace that symbolises the authority of the Parliament. Sergeant-at-Arms attends the Speaker on other occasions. The Speaker has his office in the Parliamentary Complex and the Secretary General of Parliament, who is in charge of the administrative duties of Parliament reports to the Speaker. On ceremonial sittings or occasions, the Speaker wears a robe of black satin damask trimmed with gold lace, a mourning rosette (also known as a ‘wig bag’) and frogs with full bottomed wig. On normal sitting days, the Speaker wears only the robe and rosette without the wig or in certain cases without the official dress. This practice was adopted from the official dress of the Speaker of the House of Commons.

Sir Alexander Francis Molamure was the first Speaker of the State Council of Sri Lanka followed by Forester Augustus Obeysekere and Waithilingam Duraiswamy. When the Parliament of Sri Lanka was established Sir Alexander Francis Molamure was the first Speaker followed by Albert Peiris and Hameed Hussain Sheikh Ismail.

In conclusion, comparatively the Speaker of the Lok Sabha in India ranks sixth, along with the Chief Justice of India. The Speaker is answerable to the House. Both the Speaker and Deputy Speaker may be removed by a resolution passed by the majority of the members. Lok Sabha Speaker can be elected by the President on a nomination basis. All Bills passed require his or her signature to go to the Rajya Sabha for its consideration. He/ she is the highest official of the Lok Sabha. Thus similar powers with some differences are exercised by the Speakers in Sri Lanka and India.

The writer is an Attorney-at-Law
with LLB, LLM, M.Phil. (Colombo)

[email protected]

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