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Royal commissions

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Sydney: (02) 9261 4555

John Sutton

Royal Commissions have wide and coercive powers to gather information. These include compulsory interrogation, punishment for contempt and the issuing of search warrants.

A Royal Commission can be established to consider "any matter specified in the Letters Patent, and which relates to or is connected with the peace, order and good government of the Commonwealth, or any public purpose or any power of the Commonwealth".

A Royal Commission is a public inquiry issued by the Governor-General by letters patent to inquire and report on a specific subject matter. Generally, the subject matters involve controversial issues that are of public importance.

Findings by Royal Commissions do not of themselves have legal consequences. However, criminal proceedings can and normally follow from the Royal Commission’s findings, and the Commission can make policy recommendations to the Government to change laws.

General rules of a Royal Commission

It is an offence to hamper the investigations of the Royal Commission by:

  • Giving false or misleading evidence: Penalty: up to $20,000 or 5 years imprisonment
  • Failing to attend a hearing if you are required as a witness: Penalty: $1000 or 6 months imprisonment
  • Failing to produce documents that you are required to produce: Penalty: $1000 or 6 months imprisonment
  • A witness who fails to turn up may be arrested.
  • Refusing to be sworn or make an affirmation, or to answer any question relevant to the inquiry put to you by any of the Commissioners: Penalty: $1000 or 6 months imprisonment.
  • Destroying documents or other things that you know may be required by the Commission : Penalty: up to $10,000 or 2 years imprisonment

It is also an offence to interfere with witnesses appearing before a Royal Commission by:

  • Bribing a witness to give false testimony or withhold true testimony: Penalty: 5 years imprisonment1
  • Practicing fraud on a witness (e.g. by making false representations to him/her) with the intention of affecting his/her testimony: Penalty: 2 years imprisonment
  • Preventing a witness from attending before a Royal Commission: Penalty 1 year imprisonment
  • Causing injury (by violence, punishment, damage, loss or disadvantage) to a person for appearing as a witness, giving evidence or producing documents before a Royal Commission: Penalty: $1000 or 1 year imprisonment
  • Dismissing an employee for appearing as a witness before a Royal Commission: Penalty: $1000 or 1 year imprisonment

It is an offence to be in contempt of a Royal Commission by:

  • Intentionally insulting or disturbing a Royal Commission,
  • Interrupting the proceedings of a Royal Commission
  • Using any insulting language towards a Royal Commission
  • Writing or saying anything that is false and defamatory of a Royal Commission
  • Penalty: $200 or 3 months imprisonment

Defences to non-production of documents

It is a defence if you can show that a document you are required to produce is not relevant to the inquiry.

If you are not a witness, but have been served with a notice to produce the document, it is also a defence if you can show that you had a reasonable excuse for not producing the document in question.

Examples of Australian Royal Commissions in the past:

Royal Commission on loss of H.M.A.S. Voyager (1964): Investigation into the collision between two warships – the HMAS Melbourne and HMAS Voyager.

Royal Commission on the statement of Lieutenant Commander Cabban and matters incidental thereto (1967-1968): Investigation of the claims that the captain of HMAS Voyager frequently drank excessively and was thus unfit for command.

Royal Commission into British nuclear tests in Australia (1984 – 1985): Investigation of the British using Australian territory and soldiers for testing nuclear weapons with the Australian government’s permission at the time.

Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1987 – 1991): Investigation of the disproportionately high number of deaths of Aboriginal people while in custody, after being arrested or convicted of crime. The deaths included suicide, medical conditions, as well as injuries caused by police.

Royal Commission into HIH Insurance (2001 – 2003): Investigation of the collapse of Australia’s then second largest insurance company, HIH Insurance.

Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry (2001 – 2003): Investigation of the alleged misconduct in industrial relations within the building and construction industry in Australia after unsuccessful attempts by Federal Government to impose greater regulation on industrial relations in that industry.

Inquiry into certain Australian companies in relation to the UN Oil-For-Food Program (better known as the "Cole Inquiry") (2005 – 2006): Investigations on whether decisions, actions, conduct or payments by Australian companies mentioned in the Final Report of the Independent Inquiry Committee into the United Nations Oil-for-Food Program breached any Federal, State or Territory law.

The UN had conducted an inquiry to investigate allegations of corruption and fraud in the UN Oil-for-Food Program. It was found that the Australian Wheat Board (AWB) had paid huge sums of "trucking charges" to a trucking company that kept a small percentage of the "charges" and which then passed what remained to the Saddam Hussein government, in exchange for trouble-free delivery of wheat purchased under the Oil-for-Food program.

NSW Royal Commissions

States and Territories can conduct their own public inquiries with coercive powers. The law on NSW Royal Commissions is given by the Royal Commissions Act 1923 (NSW). The general rules concerning a NSW Royal Commission are similar to those of the Commonwealth Royal Commission.

Examples of NSW Royal Commissions in the past:

Royal Commission into the New South Wales Police Service – "Wood Royal Commission" (1994 – 1997): Investigation of entrenched and systemic corruption within the NSW police force, including bribery, money laundering, drug trafficking, falsifying police evidence and being involved in serious and organised crime

Royal Commission into "Deep Sleep Therapy" – "Chelmsford Royal Commission" (1988 – 1990): Investigation of patient deaths caused by induced comas followed by electroconvulsive therapy at the Chelmsford psychiatric hospital in Sydney during the 1960s and 1970s

Royal Commission into Drug Trafficking – "Woodward Royal Commission" (1977-1980): Investigation of drug trafficking in NSW, particularly of links between the Mafia and NSW Police, as well as the disappearance of anti-marijuana campaigner, Donald Mackay.


where to next?

If you suspect that you may be under investigation, or if you have been charged with an offence, it is vital to get competent legal advice as early as possible. Our lawyers are highly specialised in criminal law and will be able to guide you through the process while dealing with the various authorities related to your matter.

Why Choose Armstrong Legal?

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