The Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability has had its first set of hearings from Monday, 4 November 2019 to Thursday, 7 November.
Taking place in Townsville, Queensland, this first week of hearings began the inquest into the experiences of people with disability, with a focus on education and the existing policies and procedures.
There is a lot to unpack with how this Royal Commission will work and what the overall aim of this inquest is. Below we’re explaining some of the background of the Royal Commission.
How it will work
The Disability Royal Commission was called to investigate violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disability, how this could happen and what can be done to make sure it won’t happen again.
The Royal Commission starts today and is expected to run for 3 years and will cost $527.9 million.
During this time the Commissioners will review all the information presented to them in the submissions and also hold a series of hearings, each focused on a different aspect of the industry.
The Commissioners are required to provide an interim report by 30 October 2020, and a final report by 29 April 2022.
Anyone affected by or involved with the focus points of the Royal Commission is able to share their story with the Commission. They may be asked to appear as a witness and give evidence during a public hearing.
The witnesses will be examined and questioned by the Counsel Assisting, with Commissioners able to question the witness as well.
The hearings will move around the country, from capital cities to regional areas, and times and locations will be announced before the actual hearings.
Commission hearings are open for the public to attend, however, there is limited seating, but there will also be a live stream of the hearings.
Media are allowed to attend the hearings and watch the hearings, and report on what happens during the Commission. However, media is not allowed to report on any witnesses who want to remain anonymous or any information not for publication.
How did it start?
The Disability Royal Commission was pushed through by Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John.
The Commission was provided $528 million by the Government to run a three year inquiry covering all forms of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation in all settings, including residential and home care.
On 4 April of this year, the Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, His Excellency General, the Honourable, Sir Peter Cosgrove AK MC, established the Commission.
Why is it important?
There is a very good reason why the Disability Royal Commission has been called; because too many people with disability are still experiencing violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation.
National consumer peak body, People with Disability Australia (PWDA), state that people with disability experience higher rates of violence than their peers without a disability.
People with intellectual disability are ten times more likely to experience violence than people without disability.
Around twenty percent of women with disability report a history of unwanted sex, compared to 8.2 percent of women without disability.
Chief Executive Officer at People with Disability Australia, Jeff Smith, says, “The terrible toll that violence and abuse has taken on people with disability will finally be brought to light, as people with disability start to tell their stories to the Commission.
“The Disability Royal Commission needs to be the start of the significant changes that are needed to stop the violence against us, such as ending segregation and discrimination against us.
“We know that there are many people with disability around the country who are writing their submissions right now, and sending them into the Commission.”
The Commissioners will be providing an interim report to Government by 30 October 2020, with a final report to be delivered by 29 April 2022.
A Royal Commission is run by Commissioners who will read all the submissions and listen to and question any witnesses to then make recommendations to the Government in a final report. The people appointed to the Commission are usually people with specific knowledge or experience that is relevant to the Royal Commission.
Appointed as Chair of the Royal Commission was Honourable Ronald Sackville AO QC.
Commissioner Sackville has past experience as a Judge for the Federal Court of Australia between 1994 to 2009.
Commissioner Sackville has chaired a number of Commissions over the years, including the Victorian Accident Compensation Commission (1985-1989); Commonwealth Schools Commission (1984 - 1985); Commissioner for Law and Poverty, Australian Government Commission of Inquiry into Poverty (1973-1975); Chair of the South Australian Royal Commission into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs (1977-1979); Chair of the New South Wales Law Reform Commission (1981-1984); Assistant Commissioner, Independent Commission Against Corruption (1992); and Chair, Commonwealth Access to Justice Advisory Committee (1994).
Also sitting alongside Commissioner Sackville is:
Roslyn Atkinson AO - Former Judge of the Supreme Court of Queensland (1998 - 2018).
Barbara Bennett PSM - 20 years experience in senior positions at the Department of Social Services and Department of Human Services.
Dr Rhonda Galbally AC - Living with a disability herself, she was a board member of the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) and Principal Member of the Independent Advisory Council.
Andrea Mason OAM - Former CEO of the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (NPY) Women’s Council.
Alastair McEwin AM - Former Australian Disability Discrimination Commissioner from 2016 to 2019. He has spent time as a Manager of the Australian Centre for Disability Law and CEO of People with Disability Australia.
John Ryan AM - Former Shadow Minister for Disability Services (2003-2009). He was in the teaching sector for nearly a decade before being elected to the NSW Parliament in 1991.
The Commission has been plagued by controversy since it was announced. From the appointed Commissioners to the timing of the hearings, the Commission has divided public opinion.
The main concerns were raised by Craig Wallace, convenor of the Disability Royal Commission Action Group, and the potential bias from Commissioner John Ryan and Commissioner Barbara Bennett PSM. Since they both have backgrounds in the disability sector in some form.
On the Commission website, the Commissioners have outlined any conflict of interest they may potentially have.
Commissioner Bennett specified that to avoid any “perceived or potential conflict of interest”, she will not be involved in hearings that have officials from the Department of Social Services providing evidence to the Commission.
Commissioner John Ryan AM was employed in the NSW public sector in multiple departments, due to those working relationships with senior operational staff, he will not be participating in Commission hearings that involve NSW Government departments as a disability service, accommodation provider or any organisation that he has had a working relationship with.
Additionally, at last week’s Senate Estimates, Senator Steele-John has some tough questions for the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee officials around the Disability Royal Commission.
Through the questioning, Senator Jordon Steele-John was able to clarify that the legal and emotional supports were scaling but not currently to scale, the accessibility strategy is still being finalised, two senior legal figures have stepped away before the start of hearings, and disability organisations are concerned about the first hearings timeline.
Ms Toni Pirani, Official Secretary, told the Senate Estimates that the Commission is “confident” that the issues raised can be resolved in time for the first hearing.
“The Counsel that we have appointed have been appointed for some time. They're very experienced. They're very well advanced in their preparation for the hearing. The commission is very confident that we are ready to go ahead and conduct the hearings,” says Ms Pirani.
Not happy with the response, Senator Steele-John quoted a letter sent to Commissioner Ronald Sackville by disability organisations, which states that disability advocacy groups are advising people not to engage with the Commission until the processes of supports are available.
“They have asked you specifically not to go ahead with this time frame, in the spirit of putting disabled people at the centre of everything the commission does. It is not a good look, folks,” says Senator Steele-John.
What peak bodies are thinking about the Royal Commission
While People with Disability Australia (PWDA) feel that the Royal Commission is beginning sooner than expected, they still want the first hearings to go ahead.
PWDA Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Jeff Smith, says, “We do have some concerns about these changes at the Royal Commission, but we believe that the first hearing can go ahead.
“People with disability have waited a long time to have their stories heard, and we know that the first hearing will be welcomed as a step towards a future free of violence and abuse.
“Our advocates have been taking calls from people with disability for some time, and are assisting people with disability right now with submissions. We’re looking forward to having more resources coming on board very soon.”
PWDA has been in talks with Minister for Families and Social Services, Anne Ruston, along with other Disabled Peoples’ Organisations and people with disability about the supports they require through the Royal Commission.
Mr Smith is pleased to see counselling services and legal services available, and he is aware that other advocacy organisations, like PWDA, are ramping up their own services.
PWDA has also received Government funding from individual advocacy services in New South Wales and Queensland, as well as small amounts of funding to support systemic policy work for the Commission.
Mr Smith says, “We will be continuing to monitor what people with disability need, and advocate strongly to the Australian Government about further supports.”
How to submit to the Commission?
If you are wanting to make a submission to the Commission about your own experiences of violence, neglect, abuse or exploitation as a person with disability or a carer of a person with disability, there are a few ways this can be done.
Depending on what makes you feel most comfortable, a submission can be provided by phone, email or through the Commission website.
The importance of the Commission has resulted in the wide variety of ways you can share your story.
If you speak another language, the Commission will accept submissions in your first language, including Indigenous languages.
The submission process has been translated into Auslan. There are videos providing information on how to make a submission, such as an overview of the submission process, making as submission, and answers frequently asked questions.
If you require an Easy Read document, that is available to assist people in the steps and processes of making a submission.
The Commission is creating more processes at the moment to make submissions more streamlined and accessible.
There are forms available on the Commission website to make a submission.
If you need assistance, contact 1800 517 99 or +61 7 3734 1900 between 9 am to 5 pm AEDT (Australian Eastern Daylight Time) from Monday to Friday, excluding national public holidays.
You are also able to make a submission via the above phone numbers during the allocated times.
You can email the Commission on their email, [email protected], or mail your submission to GPO Box 1422, Brisbane, Queensland 4001.
Due to the sensitive nature of the Disability Royal Commission, a range of emotional and legal support services have been set up to help people providing evidence.
There are free legal advisory services people can access for their interactions with the Commission. You can register your interest with National Legal Aid (NLA) or the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS).
To register, call 1800 771 800 between 9:15 am to 5:15 pm Australian Eastern Daylight Time (AEDT) from Monday to Friday, excluding holidays.
The Department of Social Services have launched a national free counselling and referral service, delivered by the Blue Knot Foundation.
This is available for people with disability, their families or carers, or anyone affect by the Disability Royal Commission. Call the service on 1800 421 468 or 02 6146 1468.
This service is available from 9 am to 6 pm weekdays or from 9 am to 5 pm on weekends (AEDT).
If you are deaf, hearing impaired and/or have a speech impairment, you can contact the National Relay Services (NRS) on 133 677.
For people that need support in another language, there is a free Translating and Interpreting Service (TIS National) available.
Call the National Counselling and Referral Service on 1800 421 468 and ask for an interpreter. The counsellor will make arrangement to suit your needs.
Or you can call TIS National, 131 450, first and ask to be connected to the Counselling service.
For more immediate 24/7 crisis support, contact Beyond Blue Support Service on 1300 224 636 or Lifeline Crisis Support on 13 11 14.
Legal financial support has been set up for people who need assistance meeting the costs of legal representation associated with formal engagement with the Commission.
To visit the website to find out more, head to the Commonwealth Legal Financial Assistance Scheme website.
Other advocacy services which may be helpful include disability peak bodies or organisations, like People with Disability Australia (PWDA).