Explaining the Royal Commission of Inquiry

Explaining the Royal Commission of Inquiry
Photo credit: Getty.

On February 1, Labour announced a Royal Commission of Inquiry into abuse of children in state care between 1950 and 2000.

A Royal Commission is the most serious legal response to a single issue available to the New Zealand Government. It grants extensive powers to whoever chairs it, in this case former Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand.

According to the Department of Internal Affairs, a Royal Commission is established to investigate "matters of great importance and difficulty" and has "power of compulsion over witnesses and documentation."

This means the Commission is uniquely empowered to gather information, as it can place significant legal pressure on any groups or individuals to divulge all information relevant to its investigation.

Once a Royal Commission's investigations are complete, it makes legislative and policy recommendations addressing whatever issue it was established to investigate.  

Crucially however, the Royal Commission is not answerable to the Government.

While it may be initiated by the State, a Royal inquiry is run independently. Once it begins it only reports to the Attorney-General. The Government cannot interfere with the direction of an inquiry or influence its findings.

However, when starting a Royal Commission, the Government will determine the "Terms of Reference" the Commission must follow. That means the inquiry has significant investigative power within a narrow field of focus.

Governments will usually be careful to specify an end date for the inquiry, as once the inquiry begins they no longer have any control over it.

The most recent Royal Commissions were established in 2011 to investigate building failures during the Canterbury Earthquake and the Pike River Mine disaster.

The terms of reference for the current inquiry state that it is "to issue its complete report, containing findings and recommendations, in writing, before the end of the current Parliamentary term."

It is important to note the current terms of reference are at the draft stage and could change.

Also important is that, while it is powerful as a fact-finding tool, the current Commission has no power to determine criminal liability and can only make non-binding recommendations.

Sir Anand Satyanand is currently conducting a public consultation on the draft terms, before reporting to the Minister of Internal Affairs to finalise the terms.

The full draft terms of reference for the Royal Commission can be viewed here.

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