A P Herbert once said “a Government department appointing a royal commission is like a dog burying a bone – except that a dog does eventually return to the bone”.
He was partly right of course, and many Royal Commissions have been used as a convenient means of burying subjects too difficult for governments to handle. Conveniently, they always take years to report, so they can be a useful way of transferring difficult problems to a future government. Often their recommendations have been ignored and in some cases Commissions have even been wound up before they have had a chance to produce any report at all.
However, Royal Commissions on criminal justice matters have tended to be rather more productive, and several have been instrumental in producing real and lasting change.
The Capital Punishment Amendment Act 1868, which abolished public executions, was introduced following recommendations in the 1864 – 66 Royal Commission on capital punishment.
In more recent times, the 1978 – 81 Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure led both to the establishment of the Crown Prosecution Service and to the passing of the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act, two reforms of huge significance.
The 1991 Royal Commission on Criminal Justice made a number of recommendations that were not followed, but its important proposal for the establishment of a Criminal Cases Review Commission was accepted. That too was an important legacy, despite the CCRC’s recent troubles.
Continue reading “The prerogative of procrastination: what has happened to the Royal Commission on criminal justice?”