Commission faced with huge task

LAST week the Prime Minister announced she would recommend that the Governor-General establish a Royal Commission into "institutional responses to instances and allegations of child sexual abuse in Australia". 

In announcing the Royal Commission the Prime Minister said "the allegations that have come to light recently about child sexual abuse have been heart-breaking."

 Pardon? Recent? I know some people think Ms Gillard is out of touch but to suggest child sexual abuse is a recent thing is pretty weird.

A few things about a Royal Commission.

The Queen of Australia or her representative, the Governor-General, has an inherent power to call for a commission to make any inquiry as they think fit; a so-called Royal Commission; so long as the inquiry is for the purpose of government.  

This power is confirmed in the Royal Commissions Act 1902.

A Royal Commission has the power to compel witnesses to give evidence and to produce documents, the power to issue search warrants, the power to issue telephone and electronic recording devices and the power to conduct its inquiry in any manner it thinks fit.  

A witness cannot refuse to give evidence, decline to answer any question, or decline to produce any thing or document even if that evidence, thing or document would incriminate them.  This is at odds with the general law  that provides a protection against self-incrimination.

Any person who gives evidence before a Royal Commission or person asked to produce a document or thing to a Royal Commission can be legally represented.

A witness before a Royal Commission can apply to give their evidence in private if the taking of their evidence in public would cause them unfair damage.  

Any evidence or document or thing produced by a person before the Royal Commission is not admissible in evidence against that person in any subsequent civil or criminal proceedings.

A Royal Commission can communicate information it receives concerning a contravention of the law to the authority responsible for administration of that law.

In practice a Royal Commission will, at the end of its inquiry, produce for the government a written report with findings and recommendations.

Obviously the task facing this Royal Commission is enormous. The Royal Commission can only inquire into matters within the terms of reference.

This means the matters into which the Royal Commission can inquire. 

The terms of reference are formulated by the Governor-General, acting on advice of the Prime Minister. Confining the inquiry so that it does not last forever is going to be an interesting exercise to observe. A similar Royal Commission in Ireland lasted nine years.

During a course of doing some reading in relation to Royal Commissions, I learned that in 1904 there was a Royal Commission on the Butter Industry in Australia.  If you'll pardon the pun I hope there is nothing soft about the way this Royal Commission is conducted; I doubt there will be. 

In truth it is going to be a horrible but necessary process.  

Toby Tancred, Whiteley Ironside &  Shillington


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