The former judge who chaired Victoria’s Royal Commission into Family Violence says she was at first sceptical about what the inquiry would achieve.
Marcia Neave, a former judge of the Court of Appeal who chaired an inquiry into sex work in the 1980s, sought reassurance from the government that it was committed to implementing whatever the investigation recommended before she agreed to the job.
She believes royal commissions have been used to “park” issues in the past and sometimes it makes more sense just to spend the money fixing the problem.
But she ended up with a well-resourced — though time-pressed — inquiry and eventually the government agreed to all 227 recommendations.
“I have to say I was initially sceptical about a royal commission into family violence, although I was ultimately persuaded to chair this commission,” she told an event at Victoria University’s Sir Zelman Cowen Centre about the impacts of royal commissions on policymaking on Monday night.
“One of the reasons I think I was persuaded, and something that became stronger in my mind as I went on, is a commission can inform the community, and it can symbolically reflect the importance of doing something about a particular problem.
“In my royal commission, having people giving evidence, having community consultations and the media reporting on those things made people think about the pervasiveness of the social evil of family violence. I think that we were able to expose the scope and the horrible effects of family violence in ways that hadn’t occurred before, although of course many, many people and many other organisations, including the Victorian Law Reform Commission, had tried to do this in the past.”
The recent Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory also demonstrated that the spotlight of such a process can make it harder for politicians to avoid answering tough questions, Neave said.
Having the powers of a royal commission made it much easier to get statistics out of the public service, she said. Although departments would probably have responded anyway, being able to compel information meant everything happened faster because it was taken more seriously.
Neave has also been working with the government in an “informal consultative” capacity to help guide implementation, explaining what was intended by recommendations and so on, an approach she thinks is working well.
The less adversarial approach
She noted that royal commissions were now very expensive due to the need for witnesses to be legally represented.
“It would be unfair for people to be facing the prospect of giving evidence and being cross-examined on issues which could lead to their prosecution, which could lead to civil liability,” she said.
“One way of reducing costs and increasing effectiveness may be to consider less adversarial ways of gaining access to information, and limiting the involvement of lawyers in some way. For example, do you need lawyers drafting your report, or can that be done as well by people who are not barristers or practising lawyers — researchers? Another might be to cap lawyers’ fees in certain circumstances, a controversial topic.”
But the family violence royal commission used the adversarial approach sparingly, reflecting concerns about the impact of such approaches on sensitive issues. An audience member who had been a survivor witness at the inquiry said she had wanted to participate because the royal commission process was not set up to be adversarial, and “everything up until that point was adversarial”.
Using the media effectively
Although royal commissions still tended to be investigative, those on complex social policy problems were some of the most useful, said financial journalist Alan Kohler.
“In some ways they’re the best royal commissions because they allow a conversation about a really important issue to take place outside the parliament and the media, which is where most of these things take place,” he said.
But one of the royal commission chair’s jobs was to ensure a constant stream of stories in the media so the public could see that money was being spent effectively, he noted, drawing agreement from Neave.
There is also a case to be made for setting up a statutory authority that could recommend topics for royal commissions, Kohler believes.