- The term Royal Commission may also be used in the United Kingdom to describe the group of Lords Commissioners who may act in the stead of the Sovereign to grant Royal Assent to legislation passed by Parliament.
In Commonwealth realms and other monarchies a Royal Commission is a major ad-hoc formal public inquiry into a defined issue. They have been held in various countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Saudi Arabia. A Royal Commission is similar in function to a Commission of Enquiry (or Inquiry) found in other countries such as Ireland, South Africa, and Hong Kong.
A Royal Commissioner has considerable powers, generally greater even than those of a judge but restricted to the "Terms of Reference" of the Commission. The Commission is created by the Head of State (the Sovereign, or his/her representative in the form of a Governor-General or Governor) on the advice of the Government and formally appointed by Letters Patent. In practice—unlike lesser forms of inquiry—once a Commission has started the government cannot stop it. Consequently governments are usually very careful about framing the Terms of Reference and generally include in them a date by which the commission must finish.
Royal Commissions are called to look into matters of great importance and usually controversy. These can be matters such as government structure, the treatment of minorities, events of considerable public concern or economic questions.
Many Royal Commissions last many years and, often, a different government is left to respond to the findings. In Australia—and particularly New South Wales—Royal Commissions have been investigations into police and government corruption and organised crime using the very broad coercive powers of the Royal Commissioner to defeat the protective systems that powerful, but corrupt, public officials had used to shield themselves from conventional investigation.
Royal Commissions are usually chaired by one or more notable figures. Because of their quasi-judicial powers the Commissioners are often retired senior judges.
Royal Commissions usually involve research into an issue, consultations with experts both within and outside of government and public consultations as well. The Warrant may grant immense investigatory powers, including summoning witnesses under oath, offering of indemnities, seizing of documents and other evidence (sometimes including those normally protected, such as classified information), holding hearings in camera if necessary and—in a few cases—compelling all government officials to aid in the execution of the Commission.
The results of Royal Commissions are published in, often, massive reports of findings containing policy recommendations. (Due to the verbose nature of the titles of these formal documents – for example, the Royal commission into whether there has been corrupt or criminal conduct by any Western Australian Police Officer – they are commonly known by the name of the principal Commissioner.) While these reports are often quite influential, with the government enacting some or all recommendations into law, the work of some Commissions have been almost completely ignored by the government. In other cases, where the Commissioner has departed from the Warranted terms, the commission has been dissolved by a superior court.
Notable Royal Commissions
- The mainland states held a number of Royal Commissions into the Railway Gauge issue.
Commonwealth of Australia
- Royal Commission in the matter of an inquiry into a statement that there was a document missing from the official files in relation to "The Brisbane Line" (1943)
Royal Commission on loss of HMAS Voyager (1964), investigated the collision between HMAS Melbourne and HMAS Voyager
Royal Commission on the statement of Lieutenant Commander Cabban and matters incidental thereto (1967–1968), investigated claims that the captain of HMAS Voyager frequently drank to excess and was unfit for command
Royal Commission on the activities of the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union ("Costigan Royal Commission") (1980–1984), investigated organised crime influences and drug trafficking in a large trade union
Royal Commission of Inquiry into Drug Trafficking ("Stewart Royal Commission"), (1981–1983)
Royal Commission into British nuclear tests in Australia (1984–1985)
Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1987–1991), investigated the disproportionate number of deaths of Australian Aboriginals while in custody
Royal Commission into HIH Insurance (2001–2003), investigated the collapse of HIH Insurance, then Australia's second largest insurance company
Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry ("Cole Royal Commission"), (2001–2003), investigated the conduct of industrial relations within the building industry
Inquiry into certain Australian companies in relation to the UN Oil-For-Food Programme ("Cole Inquiry"), (2005–2006), investigation into the alleged participation of the AWB into the Oil for Food program
New South Wales
- Commission of Inquiry on Allegations relating to the Hong Kong Institute of Education (2007)
- Commission of Inquiry on the New Airport (1998 99)
- Commission of Inquiry into the Garley Building Fire (1996 97)
Royal Commission for Jubail and Yanbu (1975) in planning, development, construction, operation and maintenance of the various infrastructure and services of Jubail and Yanbu industrial cities.
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