Royal commission will override confidentiality agreements


Royal commission will override confidentiality agreements

By chief political correspondent Simon Cullen, ABCUpdated January 16, 2013, 7:07 pm



The head of the royal commission into child sexual abuse has vowed to use its powers to override confidentiality agreements between victims and institutions if the information is necessary to its investigation.

The six commissioners appointed by the Federal Government to investigate allegations of systemic abuse within religious and state-run institutions have held their first face-to-face meeting in Sydney today.

Justice Peter McClellan says it is too early to say when public hearings will begin, adding the task before the commission is “complex and will take significant time”.

He has also sought to address public concerns about how the commission will deal with the issue of confidentiality agreements and whether it has the power to override them.

“We wish to emphasise that under the Royal Commission Act, the commission has powers to compel the production of evidence, including documents, and we will not hesitate in an appropriate case to exercise those powers,” Justice McClellan told reporters in Sydney.

“We will of course be mindful of the potential sensitivity of some of those matters which may require the commission to place constraints upon the further publication of any details which it obtains by this means.

“However, the commission expects that all institutions that may have entered into confidential agreements with individuals will cooperate with the commission in relation to the disclosure of those matters.”

Justice McClellan says the commission will examine individual allegations of abuse so it can understand the circumstances that allowed the behaviour to occur and what action was taken by the relevant institution.

But he says the commission does not have the power to prosecute individuals named in the inquiry, and will not be determining victims’ eligibility for compensation.

“Because the commission is not a prosecuting body, it will establish links with appropriate authorities in each state and territory to whom a matter may be referred with the expectation that, where appropriate, prosecutorial proceedings may commence.

“It is also important to understand that the commission is not charged with determining whether any person may be entitled to compensation for any injury which they may have suffered.”

Public hearings

Justice McClellan says wherever possible, the commission will hear evidence in public but acknowledges that many people will feel apprehensive about discussing sensitive matters in public.

He says steps will be taken to protect the interests of those people while also ensuring fairness to other people and institutions.

“This may mean that proceedings will take place in private, real names may not be used, and it may be necessary to place other constraints on the reporting of individual matters,” he said.

Justice McClellan says the commission will be based in Sydney but will travel around the country to hear evidence.

He says the commission will examine institutional abuse in all areas of Australia, including those which may have provided services in Indigenous communities.

He also says arrangements will be made to hear evidence from witnesses who now live overseas.

“The issues which the commission must enquire into have been the subject of public discussion both in this country and in other countries for a number of years,” he said.

“The commission is mindful of the work which has been done in various parts of Australia and will seek to draw upon the material which has already been gathered by those inquiries.”

Gail Furness SC has been appointed as counsel assisting the commission, although it is likely a second counsel will need to be appointed.
Justice McClellan says a team of lawyers from the Australian Government Solicitor will assist the commission.

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