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Law reform agencies - Royal Commissions

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Royal Commissions

Rare and expensive

Often called for but very rare due to their expense and time taken to report. The have enormous power and are extremely influential.


Ad hoc committees

Royal commissions are ad hoc advisory committees established by the government.


Though formally appointed by the Crown, hence the "royal" - to investigate any subject the administration of the day sees fit to refer to one.



They are often used for non-party political issues.


Or for issues that a government wishes to be seen as addressing in a non-party political way.


A government is not bound to accept the advice of any royal commission.


Used for controversial issues

In practice, royal commissions have sometimes been established to deal with issues that a government feels may be too controversial to be seen tackling itself.


For example, in recent years various politicians have campaigned for a royal commission to examine the issue of the decriminalisation of cannabis.


But some royal commissions have also been seen as ways of sidelining issues.


Size and composition varies

The government sets the size of a royal commission, its chairperson, membership and remit. Most commissions take evidence, deliberate and then produce a final report.


Take two – four years (hence their cost)


Some are permanent


The government usually outlines at the time of its establishment when it expects a royal commission to produce its final conclusions. The average duration from establishment to report is between two and four years.


But certain royal commissions can have a semi-permanent existence. For example, the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts was first set up in 1869 with the task of advising and assisting in the preservation of historical manuscripts and to publish them. It is still in existence today.


Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution is a standing (permanent body).


The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution is an independent standing body established in 1970 to advise the Queen, the Government, Parliament and the public on environmental issues.


Royal Commission on Capital Punishment

The Royal Commission on Capital Punishment (Cmnd 8932 1949-1953) recommended an extended insanity defence; instead the defence of diminished responsibility was created by Section 2 Homicide Act 1957.


It requires that the defendant was suffering from an abnormality of mind – which can arise from a number of conditions – which substantially impaired his or her mental responsibility at the time of the killing.


The Royal Commission on Criminal Justice (Runciman 1991 - 1993)

Formed after several high profile miscarriages of justice. Led to the Criminal Appeals Act 1995 and the establishment of the permanent Criminal Cases Review Commission,

the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which implemented many of its recommendations. But, not on the ‘right to silence’ the government ignored the advice of the Commission.


The Royal Commission on Civil Liability (Pearson 1978)

Considered no fault system in Tort. Ignored by successive governments and never likely to be implemented. Overtaken by the Woolf Report, ‘Modernising Justice’.


Royal Commission on Criminal Procedures (Phillips 1981)

Led to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.

The Royal Commission on Legal Services (Benson 1979)

Largely recommended no changes required.


The Royal Commission on The Police (1962)

Lead to the creation of the CPS.


Royal Commission on Long Term Care for the Elderly (1998)

Has had only a modest influence.


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