A royal commission is a major ad-hoc formal public inquiry into a defined issue in some monarchies. They have been held in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia. A royal commission is similar in function to a commission of inquiry (or, less commonly, enquiry) found in other countries such as Ireland, South Africa, and regions such as Hong Kong. It has considerable powers, generally greater even than those of a judge but restricted to the terms of reference of the commission. These powers include subpoenaing witnesses, taking evidence under oath and requesting documents.
The commission is created by the head of state (the sovereign, or their representative in the form of a governor-general or governor) on the advice of the government and formally appointed by letters patent. In practice—unlike lesser forms of inquiry—once a commission has started the government cannot stop it. Consequently, governments are usually very careful about framing the terms of reference and generally include in them a date by which the commission must finish.
Royal commissions are called to look into matters of great importance and usually controversy. These can be matters such as government structure, the treatment of minorities, events of considerable public concern or economic questions. Many royal commissions last many years and, often, a different government is left to respond to the findings.
Notable royal commissions
In Australia—and particularly New South Wales—royal commissions have been investigations into police and government corruption and organised crime using the very broad coercive powers of the royal commissioner to defeat the protective systems that powerful, but corrupt, public officials had used to shield themselves from conventional investigation.
Royal commissions are usually chaired by one or more notable figures. Because of their quasi-judicial powers the commissioners are often retired or serving judges. They usually involve research into an issue, consultations with experts both within and outside government and public consultations as well. The warrant may grant immense investigatory powers, including summoning witnesses under oath, offering of indemnities, seizing of documents and other evidence (sometimes including those normally protected, such as classified information), holding hearings in camera if necessary and—in a few cases—compelling all government officials to aid in the execution of the Commission. The results of Royal Commissions are published in reports, often massive, of findings containing policy recommendations. (Due to the verbose nature of the titles of these formal documents – for example, the Royal commission into whether there has been corrupt or criminal conduct by any Western Australian Police Officer – they are commonly known by the name of the commission's chair.) While these reports are often quite influential, with the government enacting some or all recommendations into law, the work of some commissions have been almost completely ignored by the government. In other cases, where the commissioner has departed from the Warranted terms, the commission has been dissolved by a superior court.
- Royal Commission in the matter of an inquiry into a statement that there was a document missing from the official files in relation to "The Brisbane Line" (1943)
- Royal Commission on loss of HMAS Voyager (1964), investigated the collision between HMAS Melbourne and HMAS Voyager
- Royal Commission on the statement of Lieutenant Commander Cabban and matters incidental thereto (1967–1968), investigated claims that the captain of HMAS Voyager frequently drank to excess and was unfit for command
- Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security ("Hope Commission") investigated the country's intelligence agencies (1974–1977)
- Royal Commission On Human Relationships (1974–1977), inquired into and reported on the family, social, educational and sexual aspects of male and female relationships.
- Royal Commission on the activities of the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union ("Costigan Royal Commission") (1980–1984), investigated organised crime influences and drug trafficking in a large trade union
- Royal Commission of Inquiry into Drug Trafficking ("Stewart Royal Commission") (1981–1983)
- Royal Commission into British nuclear tests in Australia (1984–1985)
- Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1987–1991), investigated the allegedly disproportionate number of deaths of Australian Aboriginals while in custody
- Royal Commission into HIH Insurance (2001–2003), investigated the collapse of HIH Insurance, then Australia's second largest insurance company
- Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry ("Cole Royal Commission"), (2001–2003), investigated the conduct of industrial relations within the building industry
- Inquiry into certain Australian companies in relation to the UN Oil-For-Food Programme ("Cole Inquiry"), (2005–2006), investigation into the alleged participation of the AWB into the Oil for Food program
- Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2013–2017)
- Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program (2013–2014), investigated the death of four male workers, ninety-four house fires related to insulation, and allegations of fraud as a result of the implementation of the Home Insulation Program
- Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption (2014–2015)
- Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory (2016–2017)
- Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry (2017–2019)
- Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety (2018–present)
- Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability (2019–present)
- Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements (Feb 2020-present)
New South Wales
- Royal Commission into the New South Wales Police Service ("Wood Royal Commission") (1994–1997) investigated Police corruption in New South Wales.
- Royal Commission into Drug Trafficking ("Woodward Royal Commission"), (1977–1980) investigated drug trafficking in New South Wales, especially links between the Mafia and New South Wales Police and the disappearance of Donald Mackay
- Royal Commission into New South Wales Prisons ("Nagle Royal Commission"), (1976–1978)
- Royal Commission of Inquiry in respect of certain matters relating to allegations of organised crime in clubs ("Moffitt Royal Commission") (1973–74) investigated organised crime in New South Wales.
- Chelmsford Royal Commission (1989–1990) investigated patient deaths due to induced comas at the Chelmsford psychiatric hospital in Sydney during the 1960s and 1970s
- Commission of Inquiry into Possible Illegal Activities and Associated Police Misconduct ("Fitzgerald Inquiry"), (1987–1989) into Queensland Police corruption
- Grantham Flood Commission of Inquiry
- Barrett Adolescent Centre Commission of Inquiry
- Commission appointed by the Governor-in-Chief to inquire into the loss of the "Admella" (1859)
- Royal Commission in regard to Rupert Max Stuart (1959)
- Hindmarsh Island Royal Commission (1995) investigating the legal and political controversy that involved the clash of Indigenous Australian religious beliefs and property rights regarding the construction of a bridge to Hindmarsh Island
- Kapunda Road Royal Commission (2005) investigating the circumstances of the hit and run death of Ian Humphrey and those of the trial and conviction of Eugene McGee
- (2014–2016) investigating the effectiveness of the child protection systems that are currently in place
- Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission (2015) investigating opportunities and risks for South Australia
- (2018–2019) investigating the operations and effectiveness of the Murray-Darling Basin system
- Royal Commission into the King Street Bridge failure, (1962–1963)
- Royal Commission into the West Gate Bridge collapse, (1970–1971)
- Royal Commission into the Longford gas plant accident, (1998–1999)
- 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission ("Black Saturday Royal Commission"), (2009–2010) investigating the events and conditions surrounding the 2009 Victorian bushfires
- Royal Commission into Family Violence (2015–2016)
- Royal Commission into Victoria's Mental Health System (2018–present)
- Royal Commission into alleged killing and burning of bodies of Aborigines in East Kimberley and into police methods when effecting arrests ("1927 Wood Royal Commission"), (1927) investigating the Forrest River massacre of Indigenous Australians
- Royal Commission into Commercial Activities of Government and Other Matters ("WA Inc Royal Commission") (1990–1992) investigated the collapse of Bond Corporation, Rothwells, Bell Group, and other large businesses in Western Australia as well as government commercial enterprises
- Royal Commission into the use of Executive Power ("Marks Royal Commission") (1995) to determine the circumstances of the tabling of a petition in a family law case and the alleged misleading of WA Parliament by Carmen Lawrence
- Royal commission into whether there has been corrupt or criminal conduct by any Western Australian Police Officer ("WA Police Royal Commission"), (2002–2004) investigated high-level corruption in the Western Australian police force
- Royal Commission into Juvenile Correction Facilities in the Northern Territory (2016). On 25 July 2016 Prime Minister Turnbull announced a Royal Commission will be established after an investigation by Four Corners uncovered serious mistreatment of inmates within the Northern Territory's juvenile detention system.
- Royal Commission of Inquiry into Drug Trafficking and Government Corruption (Nov 1983-Dec 1984) (formerly The Commission of Inquiry Appointed to Inquire Into the Illegal Use of the Bahamas for the Transshipment of Dangerous Drugs Destined for the United States of America) A three-person Commission of Inquiry was appointed after US-television reports alleged the government was taking bribes from drug traffickers to look the other way as drugs flowed through the Bahamas bound for the United States.
- Royal Independent Investigation Commission (June 2011), to examine the episodes of civil disobedience and alleged human rights offences committed in the aftermath of the February 2011 protests.
- Commission of Inquiry on Allegations relating to the Hong Kong Institute of Education (2007)
- Commission of Inquiry on the New Airport (1998–99)
- Commission of Inquiry into the Garley Building Fire (1996–97)
- Royal Commission of Inquiry to Investigate the Workings of Local Authorities in West Malaysia (1968)
- on the collapse of the upper deck of the Pengkalan Sultan Abdul Halim ferry terminal in Butterworth (1988)
- into (1991)
- to investigate alleged injuries suffered by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim while in police custody (1999)
- Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Lingam Video Clip (2007–2008)
- (2010– )
- Royal Commission of Inquiry on illegal immigrants in Sabah (2012–2014)
- (2015- )
- (2017– )
- Royal Commission on Mines (1911)
- Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Ballantyne's fire (1947–48)
- Royal Commission on Accident Compensation (1966–67), which produced the Woodhouse Report and led to the formation of the Accident Compensation Corporation in 1974
- Royal Commission on Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion (1975–77)
- Royal Commission into the Courts (1976–78)
- Royal Commission on Nuclear Power Generation in New Zealand (1976–1978)
- Royal Commission on Maori Courts (1978–80)
- Royal Commission to Inquire into and Report upon the Circumstances of the Convictions of Arthur Allan Thomas for the Murders of David Harvey Crewe and Jeanette Lenore Crewe (1980–1981)
- Royal Commission of Inquiry into the crash of Air New Zealand Flight 901 (Also known as "The Mahon Inquiry") (1980–1981). The findings were successfully appealed to the Privy Council, setting new legal standards for the conduct of Royal Commissions.
- Royal Commission into Certain Matters Related to Drug Trafficking (1982–83)
- Royal Commission on the Electoral System (1984–1986) investigated the electoral system, and led to New Zealand adopting the Mixed Member Proportional voting system in 1993.
- Royal Commission on Broadcasting and Related Telecommunications (1985–86)
- Royal Commission on Social Policy (1986–88)
- Royal Commission on Genetic Modification (2000–2001) to look into and report on the issues surrounding genetic modification in New Zealand
- Royal Commission on Police Conduct (2004–2007)
- Royal Commission on Auckland Governance (2007–2009)
- Royal Commission on the Pike River Mine tragedy (2011–2012)
- Royal Commission of Inquiry into Building Failures Caused by Canterbury Earthquakes (2011–2012)
- Royal Commission of Inquiry into Historical Abuse in State Care (2018–present)
- Royal Commission of Inquiry into Christchurch mosque shootings (2019–present)
- Royal Commission for inquiring into the nature and extent of the Instruction afforded by the several Institutions in Ireland established for the purpose of Education (1824)
- Royal Commission on the Poorer Classes in Ireland 1833
- Royal Commission on Railway Gauges (1845)
- Royal Commission of Inquiry into Children's Employment (1840)
- Royal Commission on the British Museum (1847–49)
- Royal Commission on the British Museum (1850)
- Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 (1850) planned the Great Exhibition and still exists as a charitable body endowed by the proceeds
- Royal Commission on the City of London (1853–54) led to the establishment of the Metropolitan Board of Works, the first London-wide local government body.
- (1856–57) based on Florence Nightingale's reports on medical care during the Crimean War
- Royal Commission on the Defence of the United Kingdom (1859)
- (1858–61), also known as the Newcastle Commission, looked into the state of public education in England in order to report what measures were required “for the extension of sound and cheap elementary instruction to all classes of the people”
- Royal Commission on the Public Schools (1861–64), also known as the Clarendon Commission, looked into the state of nine old-established public schools
- Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts (1869)
-  (1876)
- Royal Commission on Technical Instruction (1881–84)
- Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Condition of Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands (1883–84), also known as the Napier Commission
- Royal Commission on the Depression in Trade and Industry (1885–86)
- Royal Commission on the Amalgamation of the City and County of London (1889–94)
- Royal Commission on Labour (1891–92)
- (1895), also known as the Bryce Commission
- Royal Commission on Indian Expenditure (1896)
- (1896–98), also known as the First Royal Commission on Tuberculosis
- Royal Commission on Sewage Disposal (1898–1912)
- (1899), which led to the creation of the Metropolitan Water Board
- (1901–11), also known as the Second Royal Commission on Tuberculosis
- (1902–03), also known as the Elgin Commission
- Royal Commission on London Traffic (1903-1905)
- Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (1908-2015)
- Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales
- Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and Relief of Distress (1905–09)
- Royal Commission on Fuel and Engines (1912)
- (1919), also known as the Asquith Commission
- Royal Commission on London Government (1921–23), also known as the Ullswater Commission
- Royal Commission on Land Drainage (1927), chaired by Charles Bathurst, 1st Viscount Bledisloe, suggested sweeping changes in the administration of land drainage which were embodied in the Land Drainage Act 1930
- (1935), chaired by Lord Moyne
- Palestine Royal Commission (1937)
- Rhodesia-Nyasaland Royal Commission (1937–39), also known as the Bledisloe Commission, examined the possible closer union of Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland, and recommended a union of Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland but ruled-out any political amalgamation involving Southern Rhodesia due to its overtly racial policies. The Commission's recommendations were not put in place owing to the Second World War.
- Royal Commission on the Press (1947–49)
- (1949–53), also known as the Gowers Commission
- Royal Commission on Local Government in Greater London (1957–60), also known as the Herbert Commission, which made recommendations for the overhaul of the administration of the capital that were implemented in a modified form by the London Government Act 1963
- Royal Commission on the Press (1961–62)
- Royal Commission on Local Government in England (1966–69), also known as the Redcliffe-Maud Commission
- Royal Commission on Local Government in Scotland (1966–69), also known as the Wheatley Commission, which made recommendations that led to a new system of regional and district councils in Scotland introduced in 1975 under the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973
- Royal Commission on Trade Unions and Employers' Associations (1968)
- Royal Commission on the Constitution (1969–73), also known as the Kilbrandon Commission or the Crowther Commission
- Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (1970–2011)
- Royal Commission on the Press (1974–77)
- Royal Commission on Legal Services (1976), also known as the Benson Commission
- Royal Commission on Civil Liability and Compensation for Personal Injury (1973–78), also known as the Pearson Commission
- Royal Commission on the National Health Service (1975–79), chaired by Sir Alec Merrison
- "Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission". Retrieved 31 January 2019.
- "Have Your Say On The Mental Health Royal Commission". Premier of Victoria. Retrieved 31 January 2019.
- "Home". rcvmhs.vic.gov.au. Retrieved 20 July 2019.
- "Commissions of inquiry, 1909–2011 – Commissions of inquiry – Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand".
- "Report of the Royal Commission to inquire into the Crash on Mount Erebus, Antarctica of a DC10 Aircraft operated by Air New Zealand Limited Introduction and Prologue" (PDF). 1981. Retrieved 6 September 2011.
- "Royal Commission into the Pike River Mine Tragedy – pikeriver.royalcommission.govt.nz".
- Hartevelt, John. "Pike River disaster inquiry announced". Stuff.co.nz. APN. Retrieved 29 November 2010.
- "Royal Commission of Inquiry into Building Failure Caused by the Canterbury Earthquakes – Royal Commission of Inquiry into Building Failure Caused by the Canterbury Earthquakes".
- "Royal Commission into Historical Abuse in State Care". New Zealand Government of Internal Affairs. Retrieved 1 February 2018.
- "Royal commission to investigate terror attacks in NZ". The Nation. Retrieved 27 March 2019.
- A copy of the Report of the Commission is available at: http://eppi.dippam.ac.uk/documents/9883/eppi_pages/217631 (accessed 18/11/2012)
- "The 1870 Education Act". UK Parliament. Retrieved 17 February 2017.
- The Times, 22 November 1904, Index p. 7