Key Points: The Australian Law Reform Commission is promoting a new
statutory framework, proposing a form of inquiry to run parallel to
Royal Commissions, with similar advantages and outcomes to Royal
Commissions, but offering greater flexibility and less
The Australian Law Reform Commission's (ALRC's) review
of the provisions and operation of the Royal Commissions Act 1902
overviewed in our April edition. At that time, we noted that
the review presented an opportunity to develop a more modern,
flexible and ideally less expensive means of inquiry.
It remains the case that Royal Commissions, particularly those
carrying out investigations and not engaged in policy development,
have proved too inflexible to deal quickly with matters of lesser
import; and are possibly too antiquated to manage matters of
greater moment, that require forensic investigation, backed by
credible powers of compulsion.
The recently released Discussion Paper signals that the ALRC is
ready to take up the challenge of providing a 21st century approach
to statutory inquiries.
The favoured model
The ALRC is of the view that a new legislative framework is
required. It would govern the establishment and operation of
official inquiries of the Commonwealth, ensure that such inquiries
have adequate investigatory powers, while at the same time ensuring
the protection of the rights of individuals concerned.
In particular, coercive information-gathering powers are
favoured, such as compelling a person to appear and provide answers
to an inquiry, to ensure the efficient investigation of a
particular issue or event. Secondly, legal protections are
considered necessary, to ensure that the way information is
collected in an inquiry reflects an appropriate balance between the
need to determine the facts and protecting the rights of
individuals involved with, or affected by, the inquiry.
The effect would put what are now simply ad hoc inquiries on the
same solid footing as Royal Commissions, while providing more
options and flexibility for the Commonwealth.
As the ALRC's President, Emeritus Professor David Weisbrot
AM, said on the release of the Discussion Paper:
''At present, non-statutory
inquiries may not have the necessary powers to investigate, compel
people to appear before the inquiry or compel the production of
evidence. They cannot guarantee adequate legal protection to
inquiry members and to staff. In addition, there is insufficient
legal protection for people providing information to these
inquiries, especially those whose reputations may be called into
The ALRC's final report and recommendations are to be
delivered to the Attorney-General in October.
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