Last week, the Government tabled the report of the Australian Law Reform Commission’s recent review of the Royal Commissions Act 1902 (Cth). The report, Making Inquiries: A New Statutory Framework, is the first major review of the Royal Commissions Act in its 107 year history. The report, which contains 82 recommendations, addresses a number of other issues, including the need for alternative, more flexible and cost-effective forms of public inquiry.
The ALRC’s key recommendations involve the establishment of two tiers of public inquiry, with Royal Commissions being retained as the highest form of inquiry to look into matters of substantial public importance and a second tier of inquiry to be called ‘Official Inquiries’, established by ministers to look into matters of public importance. The amended Royal Commissions Act would be renamed the Inquiries Act.
Specific recommendations are made that distinguish between the two tiers of inquiry, while ensuring that each tier has the necessary tools to conduct investigations without inappropriately infringing on the rights of a person involved with, or affected by, inquiry processes. For example, Royal Commissions may still be able to abrogate the privilege against self-incrimination in certain circumstances while Official Inquiries, which the ALRC envisages will need less instructive investigatory powers, may not. Royal Commissions would also be able to abrogate ‘client legal privilege’ if stipulated in the Letters Patent, while Official Inquiries could not.
Currently, legislation does not require the tabling in Parliament of Royal Commission reports. The ALRC recommends that the current practice of governments to table reports be formalised by a statutory requirement in the Inquiries Act. If for any reason a report is not to be tabled, the Government would have to publish a statement of reasons as to why this is the case.
Another key recommendation is the development of an Inquiries Handbook aimed at preserving institutional knowledge gained from previous inquiries. The Handbook would contain information on a range of topics, including the administration of inquiries, records management and the use and protection of national security information by inquiries.
A major focus of the ALRC’s review is the escalating costs of Royal Commissions and inquiries in recent years and the difficulty in accessing accurate information about these costs. The ALRC therefore recommends that the Inquiries Act require the Australian Government to publish summary information about the costs of individual inquiries within a reasonable time of their conclusion.
The ALRC’s report and recommendations address a range of other matters, including updates on implementation of inquiry recommendations, the use and protection of national security information by inquiries and inquiries affecting indigenous peoples.
The Government is now considering the policy issues raised in the report. The report can be accessed and downloaded here.
If you would like any further information about the ALRC's report or Royal Commissions and public inquiries generally, please do not hesitate to contact us.