Since the mid-1930s the chairs of commissions have typically had strong legal backgrounds. Prior to the 1930s, only half the chairs came from a legal background. While this can be important in the conduct of many inquiries, commissions are not courts of law. They have far greater scope for creating an environment in which deeper understanding of the issues can be gained, and parties in conflict can be helped to resolve their differences. Being free from particular legal customs and interpretations of due process and order is one of the many strengths of the commission process. The chair has a key role in ensuring an ordered and thorough inquiry.
Commissions of inquiry gather information, usually in public, from a wide variety of sources – the commission itself, the major groups concerned with the subject matter, and the commission’s hearings and research. Some commissions accumulate a considerable body of information, as happened with the 1969 social-security commission. Reports are rarely more than one volume, and present the commission’s deliberations, findings and recommendations.
Some commission of inquiry reports are radical in their breadth and scope. For example, the 1966 accident-compensation commission of inquiry recommended far-reaching reforms, which led to the establishment of the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC). The 1986 electoral-system commission also recommended significant changes which were largely implemented (including the adoption of mixed-member proportional representation). A commission’s terms of reference specify the scope of its work and the related issues. Some commissions are presented with a broad brief, while others are narrowly focused.
A motley crew
In 2008 the Law Commission (a permanent body which reviews the law and legal processes) struggled to categorise past commissions of inquiry, commenting that they ‘come in such a bewildering variety of shapes and sizes that it is difficult to characterise them in any systematic way.’1
Number of commissioners
Since 1909 the number of commissioners appointed has ranged from one to 12, with an average of three. Smaller commissions of three to five members are generally more readily managed and more effective than the larger commissions.
The 1909 timber and timber-building industries commission had 11 commissioners, the 1930 workers’-compensation commission had nine, and the 1944 apprenticeship and related matters commission had 12. These larger commissions aimed to ensure that the main parties were represented so all would agree to the commission’s report. However, it did not necessarily work like that. The eight-member 1945 licensing royal commission did not produce a unanimous report. Minority reports, where commissioners disagreed with one another, occurred more frequently with smaller commissions of inquiry, particularly those into accidents and disasters, land issues, and economic and industrial issues.
Since 1980 the largest commission has been the six-member royal commission on social policy in 1986–88. The 1986 electoral-system royal commission had five members, and the 2001 genetic-modification royal commission had four members. These were major policy issues of their time.
For those commissions with more limited terms of reference, one to three members are common. The 1980 commission on taxation of travelling allowances had just one member. So did the 1980 Erebus commission (inquiring into the 1979 air crash in Antarctica), the 1995 Cave Creek commission (examining the fatal collapse of a platform in Paparoa National Park), the 1997 winebox commission (on issues of corruption relating to taxation) and the 2007 police conduct commission. Others, such as the 1980 freight forwarding industry commission and the 1982 air traffic control commission, had a more typical three members.
Members generally work full-time on commissions while they are in progress. Additional staff are appointed to assist the commission – a secretary to deal with administrative matters, shorthand and clerical staff, legal counsel (usually drawn from the Crown Law Office), research staff and specialist advisers, depending on the issue before the inquiry. Commissions are also able to draw on specialist assistance as required.