What is a Royal Commission?
A Royal Commission is a public investigation into a particular issue or event. Royal commissions examine important and often controversial matters such as government structure or events of considerable public concern.
Royal Commissions are independent of government and are usually chaired by retired or serving judges who are referred to as “Royal Commissioners”. The results of Commissions are not legally binding, but are published in reports of findings and typically contain policy recommendations.
Recent Royal Commissions
- Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide (2021 – present).
- Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements (2020).
- Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability (2019-present).
- Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry (Financial Services Royal Commission) (2017-2019).
- Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2013-2017).
- Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program (2013-2014).
Powers of a Royal Commission in Australia
The laws governing the operation of a Royal Commission are set out in the Royal Commissions Act 1902 (Cth). Under this Act, a Royal Commission has broad powers to:
- Hold public hearings,
- Call witnesses, and
- Compel evidence.
Each Commission has “terms of reference” which define its specific limits and jurisdiction.
While Royal Commissions have some of the qualities of a court, they are not courts and do not exercise judicial power.
Offences for impeding a Commission’s inquiries
Individuals can be charged with a range of offences under the Royal Commission Act for impeding a Commission’s inquiries. These include:
- Providing false or misleading evidence.
- Preventing a witness from attending.
- Destroying documents or other things.
- Contempt of Royal Commission.
Penalties for these offences range from a $2,200 fine to five years imprisonment.
NSW Royal Commissions
States and Territories can also conduct their own inquiries. The law on NSW Royal Commissions is set out in the Royal Commissions Act 1923 (NSW) and these commissions also have a wide range of powers to compel evidence. However, NSW has not instigated a State Royal Commission since 1997.