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About Royal Commissions

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What is a royal commission?

A royal commission is an independent public inquiry. In Australia, royal commissions are the highest form of inquiry on matters of public importance. They are only established in rare and exceptional circumstances.

A royal commission can:

  • find out why specific events happened
  • work out who is accountable
  • make findings and recommend changes to policies and laws.

A royal commission has broad powers to gather information to help with its inquiry. This includes the power to summon witnesses to appear before it and the power to request individuals or organisations to produce documents as evidence.

Commonwealth royal commissions can only inquire into matters that relate to the Commonwealth’s responsibilities.

Establishment

Letters Patent

The Governor-General establishes a Commonwealth royal commission by issuing Letters Patent. This is a formal document that outlines the scope of the enquiry (the terms of reference) and appoints a commissioner (or commissioners) to conduct the inquiry.

The Letters Patent also sets out the final reporting date and any other reporting dates. You can find the Letters Patent of any current royal commission on its website.

Find Letters Patent from recent past royal commissions in our document library.

Terms of reference

Royal commissions have terms of reference that set out the key areas of investigation as well as the timeline by which the inquiry must be completed.

They form part of the letters patent for a royal commission.

Collecting information and evidence

A royal commission determines its own procedures. It can collect information and evidence in several ways. They can:

  • hold formal public or private hearings
  • issue notices for a person to give information or a statement in writing, or to produce documents or things
  • conduct interviews, meeting with stakeholders and undertaking research
  • invite submissions from the public.

Information and evidence gathered by a royal commission is usually made public and forms the basis for its findings and recommendations, which are usually set out in a report.

Hearings

Hearings are usually open to the public, including the media, where witnesses give evidence about matters relevant to the royal commission’s inquiry. A person will be given a formal document called a summons to attend a hearing to give evidence or to produce documents or other things. If the evidence is very sensitive, a royal commission may decide to hold a hearing in private (closed to the public and the media).

Notices to give information or produce documents

A royal commission can collect evidence from individuals or organisations by issuing them with a notice to give information or a statement, or to produce a document or a specified thing. The notice will outline what is being requested, and when, where and how it is to be provided. It is an offence to not comply with notices issued by a royal commission without a reasonable excuse.

Find out more about responding to a notice from a royal commission.

Stakeholder consultations and community engagement

A royal commission may engage with individuals, community groups, organisations and academic institutions outside of a hearing through roundtables or other community engagement activities.

This could include inviting the public to make submissions on the subject of the inquiry.

You can find information about how to make a submission on a royal commission’s website. The Letters Patent will help you to make sure your submission is relevant to the inquiry.

Private sessions

Some, but not all, royal commissions can hold private sessions. Private sessions are different to private hearings – they are a confidential meeting between an individual and a commissioner. They allow the individual to share their personal experience of matters into which the royal commission is inquiring in a trauma informed, safe and private setting. Private sessions enable commissioners to develop a better understanding of the issues they are examining. Individuals who attend private sessions are not witnesses and do not give evidence. Their participation is voluntary and there are strict limitations on the use and disclosure of information at a private session, which apply both during and after a royal commission’s inquiry.

Outcomes

The Letters Patent will usually set out when a royal commission must provide its final report to the Governor General. This report will contain a royal commission’s findings and recommendations for change.

The final report is usually tabled in Parliament after it has been provided to the Governor-General. It is then published on the royal commission’s website.

If a royal commission obtains information that indicates a law might have been broken, it is allowed to provide that information to certain authorities. Some of the findings of a royal commission may also lead to civil or criminal prosecution.

Government response

The government will usually provide a formal response to the final report, explaining how it will act on the royal commission’s findings and recommendations. The timing of the response will be determined by the government of the day.

Related links

Appearing before a royal commission

This page provides general information about appearing at a hearing of a Commonwealth royal commission or a joint Commonwealth/state royal commission. This is not legal advice. If you have been summoned to appear before a royal commission, contact the royal commission that issued the summons with any questions you may have.

Responding to a notice issued by a royal commission

This page provides general information about notices to give (information or a statement) or to produce (documents or things) to a Commonwealth royal commission or a joint Commonwealth/state royal commission. This is not legal advice. A royal commission can give you more detailed information about responding to a notice.

Factsheets — About Royal Commissions

Factsheets about what a Royal Commission is, responding to a notice from a Royal Commission, and appearing before a Royal Commission.