What is a Royal Commission?Royal Commissions

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.


Frequently Asked Questions

Who has the power to convene a royal commission?

A Royal Commission is established by the Governor-General through “letters patent”. It is referred to as a “Royal” Commission because the Governor-General acts on behalf of the Crown. Although the Governor-General formally instigates the commission, they generally do so upon the request of government ministers.

Once established, the government has no power to end the Royal Commission. For this reason, the Commission’s jurisdiction under the terms of reference is often drafted narrowly.

What is the difference between a Royal Commission and a commission of inquiry?

A commission of inquiry refers to any formal government investigation.

A Royal Commission refers to an investigation instigated by the Governor-General under the Royal Commissions Act on behalf of the Crown.

In the past, the Australian parliament established its own “parliamentary” commissions of inquiry, through statute. Its terms and powers were determined by the terms of the originating legislation, and the Commission reported directly to parliament.

Can the public attend a Royal Commission?

A Royal Commission takes place in the public domain. The public can usually attend hearings, but sometimes they are held in private.

The benefit of an open hearing needs to be balanced against the protection of the individuals involved. For example, many of the hearings for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse were held in private sessions.

Why establish a Royal Commission?

Governments establish Royal Commissions for a variety of reasons, including to investigate:

  • Allegations of misconduct or corruption, such as the Royal Commission into the New South Wales Police Service (1994-1997) and the Royal Commission into Drug Trafficking (1977-1980).
  • Problematic or failed governmental policy, such as the Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program (2013-2014) and the Royal Commission into British nuclear tests in Australia (1984-1985).
  • Wrongdoing by both public and private services, such as the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety (2018-2021), the Royal Commission into the into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2013-2017), and the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory (2016-2017).

How can we help?

We provide expert advice and representation for individuals and organisations called to appear before Royal Commissions.

Contact us if you require assistance.