Royal Commissions

views updated May 14 2018


Royal Commissions, or commissions of inquiry, are part of the executive arm of some Commonwealth governments that are rooted in the British parliamentary system. Their main function is to inform the government and often to deal with broad topics of social, cultural, or economic importance. The reports of Royal Commissions, whether interim or final, are tabled before a nation's parliament and regularly released as parliamentary papers.

Formation and Composition

In the United Kingdom a Royal Commission consists of three or more (usually five) Commissioners, including the Lord Chancellor, who are privy counselors appointed by letters patent to perform certain functions on the queen's behalf (United Kingdom Parliament 2003). Canadian or Australian counterparts sometimes produce minority reports that are more significant than the majority findings (Canadian Press Newswire 1996).

The 1868 Inquiries Act in Canada initiated a process by which Royal Commissions could be appointed by the cabinet to carry out full and impartial investigations of specific national problems. The terms of reference for the commission and the powers and names of the commissioners are stated officially in an order-in-council. The findings are reported to the cabinet and the prime minister for appropriate action. The names of commissions usually refer to the chair or commissioners. An example is the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters, and Sciences, which was named the Massey Commission after Vincent Massey, who chaired it from 1949 to 1950 ("Index to Federal Royal Commissions" 2003).

Australia and New Zealand have implemented Royal Commissions as a means to find out facts. As in all other jurisdictions Royal Commissions in those countries are given special powers to compel the attendance of witnesses, compel the production of documents, and give special privilege to persons who give evidence before the commission so that they cannot be prosecuted or subjected to subsequent legal actions (Fitzsimmons 2003).

Scientific, Technological, and Ethical Issues

Royal Commissions have been used frequently to deal with significant scientific, technological, and ethical issues. New Zealand established the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification to develop suggestions for a new regulatory structure for its agri-food (agribusiness) sector. That commission looked for possible strategies for co-managing the range of interested parties involving new corporatist and managerial dimensions of food governance (Le Heron 2003). The Australian Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Commission, which sat from 1987 to 1991, made 339 recommendations in an attempt to prevent more deaths (Fitzsimmons 2003).

Canada's 1989 Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies was established to act as the official forum for public deliberation on a complex issue. According to Francesca Scala (2002), the commission showed great promise for defining questions of infertility treatment and related scientific research questions and matters of public concern. Scala argues, however, that the commission's stance in favor of reproductive technologies resulted from the government's capitulation to the powerful interests of the biomedical industry.


At their best Royal Commissions are seen as independent bodies that allow for significant public input. They are, however, not without controversy and often are used by governments to gain breathing room on controversial issues, with costs running into the tens of millions of dollars and reports that take years to produce, with no obligation on the part of the government to act on those recommendations.

The Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies was launched in 1989 and released its final report in 1993. It received advice from 40,000 individuals and organizations with an interest in the matter (Wood 2002). After expenditures of more than $30 million the bottom line recommendation was that Canada needed laws to govern reproductive and genetic technologies (RGT). As a result the federal government placed a moratorium on nine controversial issues, including sex selection, human embryo cloning, and the buying and selling of eggs, sperm, and embryos. The resulting introduction of Bill C-47 died on the on the order table when the 1997 election was called. The second attempt to create RGT laws, Bill C-247, failed during its second reading in the Canadian parliament.

The Massey Commission in Canada submitted 146 recommendations under eight headings. As a result of those recommendations a federal scientific research policy was created, the National Library (now Library and Archives Canada) was created, actions were taken to create the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, and additional resources were provided to support universities as well as students. The impact of the commission's recommendations continues to affect research communities across Canada more than fifty years after the publication of its report.

The Royal Society of New Zealand considered the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification to be part of an effort "promoting excellence in science and technology" (Royal Society of New Zealand). The commission provided a forum for the submission of reports from a diverse range of sources that included the Maori Congress, Friends of the Earth, New Zealand Biotechnology Association, Human Genetic Society, Grocery Marketers Association, Quakers, Anglicans, DuPont, CarterHolt, and Greenpeace.

Despite criticism regarding costs, political diversion, and lack of direct influence on final decisions, Royal Commissions often provide vital material for long-range policy decisions and are valuable as vehicles for consciousness-raising (O'Malley 2002). Ted Hodgetts, a retired political science professor who worked on Royal Commissions, stated that it sometimes takes years to measure a commission's value, particularly if a commission deals with longer-term arrangements. However, through the process of osmosis and seepage, the ideas enter the general discourse.

Royal Commissions maintain an arm's-length distance from the government of the day and provide impartiality and great inclusively of ideas, especially for ideas and opinions that do not correspond to the dominant political ideology. They generally avoid getting bogged down in party politics, as occurred with the hearings dealing with former U.S. President Bill Clinton's involvement in the Whitewater land deal and the raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas (Canadian Press Newswire 1996). Their usefulness in dealing with complex societal, scientific, technological, and ethical issues probably will continue far into the future.


SEE ALSO Bioethics Committees and Commissions;Enquete Commissions.


Harrison, Barry. (2002). "A Comparative Examination and Assessment of National Study Commissions (Canada, United States)." Ph.D. diss., West Virginia University, Morgantown, WV.

Le Heron, Richard (2003). "Creating Food Futures: Reflections on Food Governance Issues in New Zealand's Agri-Food Sector." Journal of Rural Studies 19(1): 111–125.

Scala, Francesca. (2002). "Experts, Non-Experts, and Policy Discourse: A Case Study of the Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies." Ph.D. diss. Carleton University, Ontario, Canada.


Canadian Press Newswire. (1996). "Litigation Slows Inquiries, Raising Questions about Their Effectiveness: Instead of Giving Answers, Some Royal Commissions Create Questions." Available at

Fitzsimmons, Hamish. (2003). "Royal Commission Effectiveness Questioned." ABC Online. Available at

"Index to Federal Royal Commissions." National Library of Canada. Available at

O'Malley, Martin. (2002). "An Inquiry into Inquiries." CBC News Online. Available at

Royal Society of New Zealand. (2003). "The Royal Commission on Genetic Modification." Available at

United Kingdom Parliament. (2003). "Royal Commissions." Available at

Wood, Owen. (2002). "Laws: Reproductive Technologies." CBC News Online. Available at

Royal Commissions

views updated May 09 2018

Royal Commissions


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 Commissions 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.

SEE ALSO Commonwealth, The


Gilligan, George. 2002. Royal Commissions of Inquiry. The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology 35 (3): 289307.

George Peter Gilligan

royal commissions

views updated May 14 2018

royal commissions. Though there was an element of investigation in each, it is scarcely helpful to suggest, as some writers do, that the Domesday survey of 1086 or the inquiry into the state of the monasteries in the 1530s should be regarded as early examples of royal commissions. In neither case were they panels of persons appointed to investigate and advise. The preferred 18th-cent. method of proceeding—apart from leaving things alone—was the select parliamentary committee. This had some disadvantages: composed of MPs it was likely to be partisan; few MPs had the time to devote to a thorough inquiry; and it was almost impossible to take the committee round the country to gather evidence. From 1800 onwards, with increasing concern for social questions, royal commissions multiplied—11 in the first decade, 46 in the fourth, 75 in the sixth. The period immediately after the Great Reform Act saw a number of extremely influential reports—on the Poor Law (1834), municipal corporations (1835), employment of children in mines (1842), and the state of the large towns (1844). The defects of royal commissions are not inconsiderable. They are expensive, slow, and there is no guarantee that action will follow. Indeed, cynics regard them as an admirable way of disposing of awkward issues until after the next general election.

J. A. Cannon