Disability Royal Commission: A long-awaited voice for those in need
On 5 April 2019, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the establishment of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability.
This is the seventh Royal Commission since 2013 and is set to be the biggest in recent years. The Government has committed $527.9 million to the Commission over the next three years.
HopgoodGanim Lawyers has previously represented clients in the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and the current Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety with positive outcomes.
The abuse and neglect of people with disability has been the focus of parliamentary debate for many years.
In 2015, a Senate inquiry into violence, abuse and neglect against people with disability in institutional and residential settings recommended that a Royal Commission be established to conduct further examinations.
In November last year, the NSW Ombudsman tabled a special report on the abuse and neglect of adults with disabilities in community settings, responding to 206 reports of alleged abuse and neglect.
Australia is a signatory to the international Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and has a legal obligation to take appropriate measures to protect persons with disabilities from all forms of exploitation, violence and abuse (Article 16).
The Governor-General’s letters patent (the instrument which establishes the Royal Commission) charges the Commissioners to examine:
“People with disability” is defined in the letters patent as people with any kind of impairment, whether existing at birth or acquired through illness, accident or the ageing process, including cognitive impairment and physical, sensory, intellectual and psycho-social disability.
The Commissioners have wide scope to examine all forms of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation, in all settings and contexts. However, issues which are adequately being dealt with by the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety have been carved out of the scope of the Commissioners’ examinations.
The Hon Ronald Sackville AO QC has been appointed as chair of the Royal Commission. He will be supported by five other Commissioners from diverse backgrounds.
The Commission will be based in Brisbane, with a final report due by 29 April 2022, and an interim report due by 30 October 2020.
Commonwealth Royal Commissions are independent public inquiries, established under the Royal Commissions Act 1902 (Cth).
The Commissioners have broad investigatory powers to compel individuals to participate in the inquiry, including the power to summons witnesses to appear, answer questions under oath or affirmation and produce documents.
There are very limited grounds which can be relied on to refuse to give evidence. Exceptions for legal privilege and self-incrimination only apply in limited circumstances. Failure to comply with a Commissioner’s summons may lead to a fine or imprisonment, and to search and/or arrest warrants being issued.
The Commissioners will determine how to best conduct their inquiries. There will be a call for submissions and subsequent hearings will be held around Australia to collect evidence.
The Royal Commission may invite or require parties to appear at these hearings. Interested parties can also seek leave to appear.
The Commissioners are likely to consult with advocacy groups, experts and key stakeholders, conduct community forums, roundtable meetings and site visits.
Because of the special needs of those who will be giving evidence, the Terms of Reference emphasise that the process must be accessible to people with disability. $100 million of the Commonwealth’s budget has been set aside for the support and advocacy of people with disability to participate in the proceedings.
Royal Commissions are a unique legal process and can be an intimidating and stressful environment.
We recommend, the best strategy is to take affirmative action in the process, rather than waiting for the Commission to exercise its coercive powers. If you are a registered provider under the National Disability Insurance Scheme or another organisation/individual in the sector, you should begin collating your records of incidents of neglect and abuse.
Clearly, there are issues in the disability sector that need to be addressed. As a result, this Royal Commission is likely to lead to significant reform.
For more information or discussion on this Royal Commission, please contact Partner Darrell Jardine.