Royal Commission Into Disability Abuse

Early this month the federal government committed to conducting a Royal Commission into the violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disabilities. The commitment came after many years of campaigning by disability advocates for such an inquiry to take place and after serious allegations of physical and sexual abuse, neglect and exploitation in the disability sector have become public.  The government had voted against the Royal Commission earlier this year after Greens senator Jordan Steel-John repeatedly call for it to be established.  Six Royal Commissioners have now been appointed to preside over the enquiry.

Terms of reference

The terms of reference for the Royal Commission require the commissioners to investigate:

  • What governments, institutions and the community should do to better protect persons with disabilities from violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation;
  • What governments, institutions and the community should do to achieve best practice in the reporting and investigation of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of persons with disabilities, including addressing barriers to reporting and investigating such conduct;
  • What should be done to support a more inclusive society that supports the right of people with disability to live free of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation;

In investigating these questions, the commissioners are to have regard to the following matters:

  • All forms of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disability;
  • The quality and safety of services provided to people with disability by governments, institutions and the community;
  • The experiences of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation by people with disability are multilayered and influenced by age, sex, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, intersex status, ethnic and linguistic background;
  • The critical role families and others play in providing care and support for people with disability;
  • Innovative models of investigating, reporting, preventing and responding to violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disability;
  • The findings and recommendations of previous reports and enquiries.

These terms of reference were developed through consultation with the disability sector, disability peak bodies, advocates and state and territory governments. The government also conducted an online survey in relation to the draft terms of reference, in which 3700 respondents participated.

Why a Royal Commission?

A Royal Commission is the highest form of public enquiry in Australia. Recent reports show that people with disability are more likely to have suffered violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation than people without disability. It is hoped that the Royal Commission will help governments and the broader community to know how to better protect people with disability from abuse in the future.

Responses to the announcement

The announcement of the formation of the Royal Commission was welcomed by the disability sector. Matthew Bowden, co-CEO of People with Disability Australia, was quoted as saying,

“People with disability have called for this Royal Commission for many years, due to the appalling rates of violence against us, and we look forward to the opportunities for justice, healing and prevention provided by these Terms of Reference. We are particularly happy to see that the Royal Commission will cover all people with disability in all settings and contexts.’

Opposition leader Bill Shorten has backed the Royal Commission, saying it is ‘tremendously overdue.’

Green Senator Jordan Steel-John has claimed the announcement of the Royal Commission as a win for the disability rights movement, but says there are deficiencies in the Terms of References. He says that redress for survivors of abuse ought to have been explicitly mentioned as it was in the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. He also expressed disappointment at the omission of any mention of the investigation and prosecution of criminal offences.

The Royal Commission will run for three years, with the final report due in April 2022.

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