Two personal experiences
On 22 February 2011 I was eight minutes into chairing a meeting a block away from Christchurch Cathedral. I had no hesitation in adjourning the meeting (it was resumed some three hours later when we found refuge elsewhere). More recently, a meeting of an organisation that had abandoned the previous meeting because of disorder was debating whether to appoint me as an independent chairman when one of those opposing my appointment had a heart attack, and the meeting was temporarily (but rather informally) adjourned for some 20 minutes while we waited for an ambulance to arrive to take the gentleman to hospital.
A chairperson’s obligations in emergencies or in the event of disorder?
A chairperson has ultimate responsibility for the proper conduct of and maintenance of order at a meeting. If someone disrupts a meeting the chairperson may ask them to leave or have them removed. According to the decision in a 1969 English High Court decision (John v Rees  2 All ER 274), in order of priority the chairperson’s obligations are as follows:
- To make “earnest and sustained efforts to restore order,” if necessary seeking assistance.
- To ask for a motion to adjourn, temporarily or for a longer period.
- If the meeting will not cooperate with the previous steps, “he should exercise his inherent power to adjourn the meeting for a short while,” in which event the chairperson must try to advise those present of the details of the adjournment (possibly difficult if the meeting is rowdy).
- If there is violence, similar steps should be taken, but “the greater the violence the less prolonged should be his efforts to restore order before adjourning.”
- The chairperson “… has not merely a power but a duty to adjourn in this way, in the interests of those who fear for their safety. I am not suggesting that there is a power to adjourn if the violence consists of no more than a few technical assaults and batteries. Mere pushing and jostling is one thing; it is another when people are put in fear, where there is heavy punching, or the knives are out, so that blood may flow, and there are prospects, or more, of grievous bodily harm. In the latter case the sooner the chairman adjourns the meeting the better.”
- A chairperson’s inherent power to adjourn a meeting to another date can only be exercised if he or she cannot otherwise regain order, and only “for the purpose of forwarding or facilitating the meeting, and not for the purpose of interruption or procrastination” and “the adjournment must be for no more than the necessities appear to dictate,” preferably a short time to see if a “cooling off” period will enable the meeting to be resumed. Where physical factors make it impossible to conduct a meeting properly (as in the case of the 22 February 2011 meeting) the chairperson may adjourn the meeting and, on resumption, it is the same meeting, not a new meeting. For the reasons outlined above, it is risky for a chairperson to try to close or adjourn a meeting early, other than as really warranted.
- Only those present at a meeting, not the chairperson, have the legal right to end a meeting, but the chairperson normally declares most meetings closed — with the deemed consent of the meeting. If the chairperson leaves as a way of trying to close the meeting, a member who disagrees with the chairperson’s action may immediately seek the election of a replacement chairperson, as long as a quorum is still present.