What is a Royal Commission in Australia?

by Sonia Hickey & Ugur Nedim

The Governor-General of Australia is empowered under the Royal Commissions Act of 1902 (Cth) to establish commissions of inquiry on behalf of the Crown, when there is a particularly important issue of public concern.

Typically, Royal Commissions fit two categories: the first is primarily investigative, with the aim of uncovering the truth about something. The second’s purpose is more along the lines of research, to provide information that will inform government policy. Usually, there is a degree of overlap between the two.

In recent times, we’ve had Royal Commission inquiries into aged care, youth detention, finance and banking practices, and institutional child sexual abuse to name a few. Generally, once a Royal Commission has commenced, it must run to its conclusion – it cannot be stopped. These are the highest forms of public inquiry available to governments on matters of public concern.

A Royal Commission has a specialist focus and has vast powers to probe an issue thoroughly, including undertaking research and consultations with experts in the field, as well preparing a list of witnesses.

Royal Commissions also often include public consultations which give people with a vested interest in the topic a chance to participate.

Before the start of any Royal Commission, the government will prepare a document that defines the scope and powers of a Royal Commission, as well as a date for completion of the inquiry, and deadlines for delivering reports and findings. Royal Commissions can be  called by the federal government alone, by the federal government in conjunction with a state government or just by a state government. Recently, the government of South Australia called a Royal Commission into the nuclear fuel cycle.

At this time, a Commissioner also formally appointed. This is a role with enormous responsibility. The Commissioner oversees the entire process of the inquiry. The position of Commissioner is usually held by retired or serving judges, because they are impartial and can draw on their court room experience to ensure that hearings run smoothly, and all evidence is presented, facts are clarified, and, most importantly, that all parties involved have the opportunity to be heard.

The Powers of a Royal Commission

While a Royal Commission will take evidence in a number of ways, including written submissions and sometimes informal interviews, it will often also host ‘formal’ hearings. These hearings may be either be open or closed.

Open hearings can be attended by members of the public, and the information given at these hearings is publicly accessible. In closed hearings, only certain specified categories of people many be present. Generally, closed hearings are conducted to protect a person’s identity or the ‘evidence’ they are providing.

The Royal Commission has broad powers, including the power to issue a summons compelling people to participate. If a person fails to comply, then they can be arrested and in serious cases, sent to prison. A search warrant can also be issued to obtain information pertinent to the inquiry.

It is also an offence to intentionally provide false or misleading evidence to a Royal Commission or to intentionally obstruct or disrupt it – in much the same way that perjury and perverting the course of justice are both offences in a court of law.

Royal Commissions can, and do, refer information about suspected or alleged crimes to relevant law enforcement authorities and can make recommendations with regard to prosecution.

When a Royal Commission has conducted all of its research, investigation and evidence gathering, it will compile the information it has into a single report which is presented to Parliament, along with a list of recommendations based on these findings.

Recommendations Made by a Royal Commission

Time and again, there has been public frustration that the recommendations of Royal Commissions are not always fully implemented. For example, data with regard to recommendations made by the recent Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found that out of 288 recommendations, 48% were implemented in full and 16% partially. Twenty-one percent were rated as not implemented, and the implementation status of 14% could not be determined.

While there is an expectation that governments should commit to implementing all recommendations made by a Royal Commission, sometimes this is not feasible for various reasons including the cost of implementation, clashes with other initiatives already in place, or the need for further analysis or information.

Usually there is a great deal of public pressure and an expectation of change, which does force governments to be accountable to a degree. The purpose of having a Royal Commissions is after all, to thoroughly investigate issues and seek to instigate change.

Authors

Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice, and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team.

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with over 20 years of experience as a criminal defence lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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