It Begins

The Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety conducted its first public sitting this morning in Adelaide.

The Official Secretary to the Royal Commission, Dr James Popple, formally read the Letters Patent establishing the Royal Commission.

The two Royal Commissioner's, The Honourable Richard Tracey and Ms Lynelle Briggs, then explained what can be expected of the Royal Commission, and what has been done to date.

What to Expect from the Royal Commission

A broad scope
The Royal Commission emphasised that its broad remit. It will look at issues across both residential and community care, including mistreatment and abuse. It will consider the provision of care across urban, regional and rural areas.  It will consider, among other things, young people with disabilities residing in aged care facilities, how best to deliver aged care services to people living with dementia, sub-standard care and causes of systemic failures. The Royal Commission will report on what actions ought to be implemented in order to address and avoid repetition of identified short comings.

Not matters already addressed
Commissioner Tracey explained that the Royal Commission will not be inquiring into matters that the Commissioners are satisfied have been, are being, or will be sufficiently dealt with by another investigation or criminal or civil proceeding. However, the Royal Commission will examine changes and developments implemented following previous inquiries, as well as the extent to which recommendations have been implemented.

Monitoring of the effectiveness of the new Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission
Commissioner Tracey also noted that as of 1 January 2019, the regulatory framework for aged care has altered with the establishment of the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission, and further changes planned. The Royal Commission will be cognisant that historical issues occurred in the context of a previous regulatory framework, and will follow the progress of the implementation of the new regulatory regime in order to form a judgement as to its efficacy.

Short time frames
Commissioner Briggs emphasised that the time frame for the Royal Commission is short, with an interim report due by 31 October 2019 and a final report by 30 April 2020. Commissioner Briggs explained that some of the Royal Commission's requests for information have, to date, included short time frames, including over the holiday period. Aged Care providers were put on notice by the Commission that short time frames for the provision of information will be a "normal part of the Commission" in order to meet the time frame for the interim and final reports.

There will be public hearings conducted around the country, including in some regional locations. Some private hearings will also be conducted, particularly where witnesses may be vulnerable or frail, as can be expected.

Commissioner Briggs explained that the likely major themes for the Royal Commission include:

  • Quality and safety;
  • Access and inclusion;
  • Young people with a disability;
  • Interfaces and transitions;
  • Future challenges and opportunities; and
  • How to deliver care in a sustainable way.

Making Submissions

The Royal Commission has already begun gathering and analysing information. It has requested information from approved care providers, and established an enquiries line and ability for the public to make submissions.

The Royal Commission also wants to hear from the public about their access to aged care services, whether or not it meets their needs, and the safety and quality of those services.

Submissions are now being welcomed from anyone with information or documents relevant to the Terms of Reference (available  here). That includes aged care facility operators, their residents and their families, aged care workers, unions and industry bodies. We expect all industry participants to be involved in the Royal Commission.

Submissions may be published on the Royal Commission's website, although individuals may request that their submissions not be published, or be published anonymously.

The Royal Commission's Powers

The Royal Commission has extensive powers of compulsion, and may, if necessary, exercise those powers. Commissioner Tracey reiterated that contractual confidentiality obligations do not excuse production, or answers to questions. His Honour also said that the Royal Commission would be 'gravely concerned' if people were instructed not to talk to the Royal Commission, or to withhold information.

It was noted that it is unlawful for an employer to take punitive action against a current or former employer because of their involvement in the Royal Commission, and that even merely deterring participation may give rise to an offence.

Senior Counsel Assisting Peter Gray QC also explained that the Royal Commission has new powers to require a witness to provide a statement in writing. This Royal Commission will be the first to exercise that power.

Trends Identified Already

Mr Gray QC explained that people can contact the Royal Commission by website, email or telephone, whether experiences are bad or good. The aged care workforce was identified as particularly important to the Royal Commission process. Some submissions have already being received, and trends and themes are already being identified. The preliminary trends identified to date are:

  • Incidents of elder abuse;
  • Medication mismanagement;
  • Overuse of psychotropic drugs;
  • Food safety;
  • Facilities not responding in a timely manner to requests for assistance; and
  • Wound management, leading to death.

Guidance Material Released

The Royal Commission today released five Practice Guidelines to assist parties, witnesses and members of the public understand how the Royal Commission will be conducted (available  here). They address:

  • General Guidance;
  • Legal Professional Privilege;
  • Leave to Appear and Witnesses;
  • Non-publication of contact and identifying information; and
  • Expert Reports, Witness Statements and Post-Hearing Submissions.

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