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In Britain and in some of its former colonies such as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, Royal Commissions of Inquiry have been an ad hoc, flexible, adaptive, and adaptable mode of inquiry established by centralized authority to investigate nominated issues. These topics are specified within a Royal Commission’s Terms of Reference and approved under the royal prerogative in its Letters Patent. The first recorded Royal Commission in England is better known as the Domesday Book, ordered by the Norman conqueror William I and compiled between 1080 and 1086. It was an information-gathering exercise for taxation purposes that also sought to cement the authority of a foreign king over his newly conquered population. That Royal Commissions have survived for almost a thousand years since the Domesday Book inquiry is testimony to their flexibility. Royal Commissions, like many other mechanisms of official inquiry, have continued to perform one or both of two broad functions for the state: (1) a pragmatic and/or legal function to investigate an issue for a government, collect information, submit a report, and make recommendations; and (2) a broader political, or ideological, function as a technique of governance, in particular a capability for crisis management of an issue or a range of issues.
In carrying out either, or both, of these broad functions as an information gatherer or a mechanism that provides breathing space for governments, Royal Commissions can be investigatory, inquisitorial, or a combination of both. Their capacity for coercive powers of investigation varies between jurisdictions, but in Australia, for example, they include the ability to compel the attendance of witnesses and/or the production of documents, and to examine witnesses under oath or affirmation. Australia, like the United States, is a federal jurisdiction, so the statutes underpinning the legality of a Royal Commission, can operate at a federal level, such as the Royal Commissions Act 1902, or at a state level, such as the Commission of Inquiry Statute 1854 in the state of Victoria. In Britain, Royal Commissions are established under the Tribunal of Inquiry Act 1921. There is little doubt that political considerations can be a major influence upon the establishment of Royal Commissions. Once governments have decided to establish a Royal Commission they are faced with a range of decisions regarding the form, direction, and timescale of the inquiry. They are not merely the decisions of a minister, but also reflect the opinion of a permanent civil bureaucracy. Generally, civil bureaucrats provide government ministers with advice and draft the actual terms of reference for a Royal Commission. They also provide the secretary and often a short list of appropriate potential commissioners. There has been a traditional tendency in most jurisdictions that operate Royal Commissions to appoint judges and lawyers to head such inquiries, as they are assumed to bring impartiality and independence, plus appropriate skill sets to manage large amounts of information and direct the cross-examination of witnesses.
It is difficult to evaluate just how effective Royal Commissions are. They do have a somewhat dark side historically, in that some Royal Commissions have been used as political mechanisms by various monarchs and governments. However, many Royal Commissions have brought positive social, political, and economic benefits as they gathered information on issues, established fact, helped resolve disputes, and stimulated worthwhile reform. History demonstrates that Royal Commissions have been too diverse and adaptive to be tied down to a single explanatory model, and their intrinsic adaptability and flexibility are likely to ensure their survival into the foreseeable future.
Gilligan, George. 2002. Royal Commissions of Inquiry. The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology 35 (3): 289–307.
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