Cost, formality of Royal Commissions queried in ALRC Review

The Australian Law Reform Commission today released an Issues Paper, Review of the Royal Commissions Act (IP35) seeking feedback from the community on 49 questions posed as part of its current review of the Royal Commissions Act 1902 (Cth).

The ALRC has been asked by the Attorney-General, the Hon Robert McClelland MP, to review the operation of the Act—which has been in force since 1902—and in particular to consider whether less formal alternatives to a Royal Commission may be appropriate in some circumstances.

ALRC President Professor David Weisbrot noted that “Royal Commissions look at issues of great public importance and play a very important role in ensuring that systemic failures are addressed. When there are controversial issues that cannot be handled satisfactorily by the courts or the political process, there are invariably calls for the establishment of a Royal Commission—and there are often expressions of disappointment when other ‘lesser’ forms of inquiry are established, such as the inquiries into the treatment of Dr Mohamed Haneef and Cornelia Rau.

“Royal Commissions usually prove to be very expensive. Precise figures are surprisingly difficult to pin down, but we estimate that, in today’s dollars, the Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry cost taxpayers over $70M, the one into the collapse of insurer HIH cost over $47M, and the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody cost over $50M.

Professor Weisbrot stated “A key concern for the ALRC is whether an alternative model of executive inquiry might provide similar advantages and outcomes to Royal Commissions, in terms of respect, independence, protection of witnesses and so on, while offering more flexibility, less formality and greater cost-effectiveness.”

Royal Commission powers are another issue under the spotlight. Commissioner in charge of the ALRC Inquiry, Professor Les McCrimmon, noted that, “The Act currently gives Royal Commissions a wide range of coercive information gathering powers. For example, a Royal Commission can apply for a search warrant, summon witnesses to give evidence and require the production of evidence. The exercise of such powers must be balanced carefully against the rights of those being investigated.”

“The Royal Commissions Act also contains a number of criminal offences that can be used to punish failures to comply with the requirements of a Royal Commission, interfering with witnesses, or interfering with the work or authority of a Commission. We will be exploring whether civil penalties may be more appropriate in some of these contexts,” Professor McCrimmon said.

Along with the release of the Issues Paper, the ALRC has also developed an Online Discussion Forum organised around the key questions being considered in this inquiry, making it easy for people to share their ideas and experiences at <>.

The Review of Royal Commissions Issues Paper and further information about this Inquiry are available from the ALRC website.  The closing date for written submissions in response to the Issues Paper is 19 May 2009.

The final report and recommendations are due to be presented by 30 October 2009.