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Browse the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



Royal Commission is a type of investigating agency that is used by the Government of New Zealand when it wishes to investigate certain matters outside normal parliamentary or political agencies, usually for the purpose of obtaining as public, as accurate, and as impartial an investigation as possible. Such a Commission, as its name implies, is an authority formally appointed by and responsible to the Crown through its agent in New Zealand, the Governor-General. The decision as to whether or not a Royal Commission should be constituted to investigate any matter rests as a rule in the absolute discretion of the advisers of the Crown, but there are certain occasions when its appointment is mandatory under statute, e.g., the Civil List Act of 1950.

There are no restrictions on the subject-matter which a Royal Commission can be called upon to investigate except that it has been held by the Courts that the Crown cannot set up such a Commission substantially for the purpose of determining whether or not a person has committed a crime. A Royal Commission can only inquire into such matters as are specified in its warrant of appointment or are reasonably incidental thereto, and it does not have a general roving jurisdiction. Although there are no restrictions on the number or the nature of the personnel that may be appointed to form the Commission, in practice it is usual for persons to be appointed who are not active politically, and it is usual also for the number and the ability of members to be increased in proportion to the difficulty and importance of the subject; normally also the chairman of a composite Commission has legal training. Although it was doubtful whether a Commission had this power at common law, Parliament has, by the Commissions of Inquiry Act of 1908, specifically empowered Royal Commissions to have the power of a Magistrate in the course of a hearing, including particularly the power to command persons to attend before it and to produce such documents as it requires, and to fine for failure to so appear. Moreoverl the same Act protects each member of a Roya, Commission from proceedings against him for anything he might say or report bona fide in the discharge of his duties.

Royal Commission differs from another type of commission – a Commission of Inquiry – which is sometimes appointed to present an impartial report to the Government. The difference is that, in law, a Royal Commission is appointed by and responsible to the Crown and not the Governor-General in Council, and it can investigate – subject to the one exception mentioned earlier – any matter, whilst a Commission of Inquiry is restricted to the topics stipulated in the Commission of Inquiry Act of 1908. The main distinction in practice between the two is that a Royal Commission, being more formal in creation, is usually established to consider more important and national issues than fall to a Commission of Inquiry. Thus, for example, in 1955 a Royal Commission was appointed to report on the monetary, banking, and credit system in New Zealand, but a Commission of Inquiry was appointed to investigate an accident on the Black Prince.

Both the Royal Commission and the Commission of Inquiry have been used quite frequently by New Zealand Governments (approximately 20 Royal Commissions and 28 Commissions of Inquiry between 1945 and 1965), to ascertain facts or clarify principles with a view to determining whether Government action is necessary and, if so, what it should be; but they are subject to criticism on the grounds of delay and expense.

by Donald Edgar Paterson, B.A., LL.M.(N.Z.), LL.M., J.S.D.(YALE), Lecturer in Jurisprudence and Constitutional Law, Victoria University of Wellington.

  • Finding List of New Zealand Royal Commissions and Commissions of Inquiry, Jamieson, D. G. (1961)
  • Finding List of Royal Commission Reports in the British Dominions, Cole, A. H. (1939).


Donald Edgar Paterson, B.A., LL.M.(N.Z.), LL.M., J.S.D.(YALE), Lecturer in Jurisprudence and Constitutional Law, Victoria University of Wellington.