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Research Guides

Aboriginal Deaths in Custody: The Royal Commission and its Records, 1987–91


The National Archives of Australia

The National Archives of Australia ensures that full and accurate records documenting Commonwealth government activities are created and kept. From this massive body of information the Archives selects, cares for and makes available to all, those records of continuing value. This collection constitutes the archives of the Commonwealth government – a vast and rich resource for the study of Australian history, Australian society and the Australian people.

The collection spans almost 200 years of Australian history. The main focus of the collection is material which documents Federal government activities since Federation in 1901. There are also significant holdings of nineteenth-century records which relate to functions that were transferred by the colonies to the Commonwealth government at the time of Federation and subsequently. The records described in this Guide are a small but significant part of the collection.

Access to the collection is provided free of charge in public reading rooms located in each capital city. Researchers are assisted by specialist reference staff and also have available to them a range of reference tools to help them identify and use the records in the collection. These reference tools include databases, guides, publications and fact sheets. Researchers unable to visit a reading room may seek information and assistance by telephone, mail, facsimile or email.

More information about the Archives, the collection and the services provided to researchers is provided on the Archives' Internet site. The site contains descriptions of some of the most frequently used records in the collection and includes images of some original documents and photographs. It also provides online access to the Archives' databases, which you can use to search detailed descriptions of the collections as well as descriptions of over 2 million individual items and many of our photographic collections. A visit to the site will help you determine whether the Archives holds records that may assist with your research. The site also provides links to other archives in Australia. The site is located at

Using this Guide

This Guide has been produced to assist you to identify and use the records of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC).

This description of how the Guide is arranged is followed by background information on the powers and functioning of Royal Commissions to help you understand how Royal Commissions work. Then follows information about the work of the RCIADIC itself, the types of records it created, the way the records are arranged, the Commission's recommendations on public access to its records, and an explanation of how to seek access to the records.

The main body of the Guide provides descriptive information about the records of the Commission. It is divided into six chapters which deal with: the case records; the underlying issues records; research material; the papers of the Commissioners and staff; the records of legal counsel assisting the Commission; and the Commission's administrative records.

Within each chapter a description is given of the records created by the Commission, where they are located and the access arrangements that apply to each group of records.

The Guide concludes with several appendixes. These summarise the Commission's terms of reference; list the names of the deceased persons whose cases were inquired into by the Commission; list relevant acronyms and abbreviations; and suggest further reading and other sources of archival material in the collection relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. A list of other guides to records published by the Archives and our contact addresses are provided at the end of the Guide.

Description of the Records

The records described in each of the six chapters of the Guide are listed in numerical order according to their CRS (Commonwealth Record Series) number. The CRS number is derived from the CRS system, which is the main system of arrangement and control used by the Archives to identify and describe Commonwealth records. Under the CRS system, records are described and controlled as series (groups of related record items), with each series being given a unique CRS number, title and description. The CRS number must be cited in any inquiry about the records. It provides a useful shorthand way of referring to a specific series. For example, the group of records identified by the Archives as CRS D4096 is known as 'Exhibit records, multiple number series, with variable alpha prefix'. This series contains exhibits tendered to the Commission. It may be referred to simply as D4096.

The descriptive information provided about each series includes:

  • its CRS (series) number
  • its title
  • a short description of its contents
  • the date range of the records in the series
  • the quantity of records in the series in shelf metres
  • the office of the National Archives in which the series is located
  • some examples of the types of records to be found in the series
  • the arrangements governing public access to the individual records in the series.

Many series are located in more than one Archives office. This is in accordance with recommendation 57 of the Commission, which provided that the records should be held in the State or Territory in which they were created or collected by the Commission.

The items in these series are described at both series and item level in RecordSearch, the Archives' online database. It can be accessed in our reading rooms and on our website at

Detailed information about how to obtain access to the records is given under 'Access to the Records'.

Royal Commissions

Creation and Powers

Royal Commissions are established for various reasons. Allegations of corruption or impropriety may be made against Government officials which need to be investigated. Commissions can also be formed to determine the cause of disasters, such as the sinking of HMAS Voyager in 1964. When the Government decides to establish a Royal Commission, it advises the Governor-General.

Each Commission is established by 'Letters Patent'. These are issued and signed by the Governor-General on behalf of the Sovereign. They name the Commissioner(s), set out the terms of reference by which the Commissioner will function, and nominate a date by which the Commissioner is expected to report his/her findings. The terms of reference outline the matters the Commissioner will investigate and often include the means by which the investigation is to be conducted. Copies of the Letters Patent are printed in the Commonwealth Gazette.

Royal Commissions are normally established by one government. There are, however, instances of Commissions established jointly by the Commonwealth and one or more State governments. This can be done in order to investigate matters of concern to the Commonwealth and State governments.

In the course of their operations, Royal Commissions may conduct their own research, commission research, receive written submissions and hold hearings. During these hearings interested persons and organisations can attend and give evidence if they are given leave to do so. Other persons may be called as witnesses. Notification of hearings and requests for submissions will appear in major newspapers soon after a Commission's establishment. Most proceedings are held in open session, though they can be held 'in camera' (not open to the public) should the Commissioner so decide. Royal Commissions have the power to compel witnesses to appear and give evidence, and to produce written evidence that the Commission deems to be of relevance. These powers are held by all Royal Commissions by virtue of the Royal Commissions Act 1902.


A secretariat is usually established for a Royal Commission to assist the Commissioner(s) in fulfilling the terms of reference. Staff may include a secretary, legal representatives, research officers, and various administrative support staff. Most staff members join the Commission on a temporary transfer from other Departments and return to those Departments when the Commission's work has been concluded.


Generally, Royal Commissions create their own records and receive them from other sources. These may include transcripts of hearings, both public and 'in camera', submissions from interested groups and individuals, exhibits, administrative correspondence, research and consultants' reports, interim reports and the final report. The final report, which sets out the Commission's findings and recommendations, is presented to the Governor-General. The Report is then usually tabled in Parliament by the Prime Minister and subsequently printed in the Parliamentary Papers. Some reports or parts of reports may be made on a confidential basis and are not tabled or made available to the public. Administrative control of all Commission records once a Royal Commission is completed falls to the Department which currently has responsibility for the Royal Commissions Act 1902. Since 1902 the Act has been administered by the following Departments:

1902–12Department of External Affairs
1912–71Prime Minister's Department
1971–72Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet
1972–75Department of the Special Minister of State
1975–77Department of Administrative Services
1977–presentDepartment of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

Public access to Royal Commission Records

Once a Commission has completed its work its records are transferred to the National Archives. Public access to these records is provided after 30 years in accordance with the provisions of the Archives Act 1983. In some cases Royal Commission records such as transcripts of public hearings and non-confidential submissions may be released before they are 30 years old.

In exceptional circumstances approval may be given to the special or accelerated release of other records from a particular Royal Commission before they are 30 years old.

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody

On 10 August 1987 the then Prime Minister, the Honourable R J L Hawke, announced the formation of a Royal Commission to investigate the causes of deaths of Aboriginals while held in State and Territory jails. The Royal Commission was established in response to a growing public concern that deaths in custody of Aboriginal people were too common and poorly explained. This Commonwealth Royal Commission was the 108th since Federation.

The establishment of the Commission and the appointment of the Honourable Mr Justice Muirhead as Royal Commissioner had the support of all State and Territory governments.

Establishment of the Commission

The Letters Patent formally establishing the Commission were issued by the Governor-General on 16 October 1987. At this stage Justice Muirhead was to look at all deaths in custody since 1 January 1980 and actions taken in respect of those deaths. Similar Letters Patent were issued by the Governors of the States and the Northern Territory. The original Letters Patent required the Commissioner to report his findings and recommendations to the Governor-General by 31 December 1988. A chronology of the issue of the Letters Patent is at Appendix 1.

Advertisements in the press asking for submissions from interested people began on 24 October 1987 and the first hearings were formally opened on 12 November 1987 in Canberra.

The Investigation

On 2 February 1988 the Prime Minister announced that a decision had been made to appoint three additional Commissioners to assist with the Commission. Mr Elliot Frank Johnston QC, the Honourable John Halden Wootten QC and Mr Lewis Wyvill QC were named as the additional Commissioners in a statement to the press. It was also stated at this time that the report would be completed by 31 December 1989. Each Commissioner held Letters Patent in his own right and conducted his inquiry independently.

The revised Letters Patent of 6 May 1988 considerably widened the scope of the Commission. Justice Muirhead was now able to take account of social, cultural and legal factors which, in his judgement, appeared to have a bearing on deaths under investigation. This decision led to the establishment of the Aboriginal Issues Units of the Commission in every State and the Northern Territory. The Units were concerned to ensure that the Commission was picking up the Aboriginal concerns and perceptions in these areas.

The revised Letters Patent also meant responsibility for investigations was divided by geographic areas among the Commissioners. Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory were the responsibility of Mr Johnston; New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania were the responsibility of the Hon. Mr Wootten and Queensland was the responsibility of Mr Wyvill. Justice Muirhead had overall responsibility and could refer any specific case.

In November 1988 a fifth Commissioner, the Honourable Daniel John O'Dea, was appointed to carry out inquiries in Western Australia where Justice Muirhead had also been investigating from mid-1988.

In April 1989 Commissioner Muirhead retired. He was replaced as National Commissioner by Commissioner Johnston on 28 April 1989 and Mr Patrick Lionel Dodson was commissioned. Commissioner Dodson worked in Western Australia, primarily on underlying issues. Also in April 1989 it was announced that deaths occurring after 31 May 1989 were to be excluded from the Commission's inquiry.

The Commission was organised on a regional basis, with offices in Adelaide, Brisbane, Broome, Canberra, Darwin and Perth, and sub-offices in Melbourne, Alice Springs and Hobart.

The Reports

The Commission produced a number of reports. Individual reports were produced for each death investigated, and they were presented separately as they were completed.

The Commission also produced an Interim Report, which was presented by Commissioner Muirhead on 21 December 1988.

The final report was signed by Commissioner Johnston on 15 April 1991. This report summarised the findings of the individual reports and discussed underlying issues investigated by the Aboriginal Issues Units. The Commission made 339 recommendations. These largely concentrated on the areas of procedures in custody, liaison with Aboriginal groups, police education and improved accessibility to information.

The full text of the final National Report, the Regional Reports, the Underlying Issues Reports and the Individual Death Reports can be found on the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation's web site at

Records of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody

Ownership of the Records

All the records of the RCIADIC were created under Letters Patent issued by the Governor-General and are therefore Commonwealth records. All of the States and the Northern Territory also issued Letters Patent for those parts of the inquiry directed towards deaths which occurred in custody in their jurisdictions. Certain records are therefore owned jointly by the Commonwealth and either a State government or the Government of the Northern Territory.

Commonwealth records are subject to the provisions of the Archives Act 1983. This includes provisions for the ownership, custody and management of access to the records of Royal Commissions. Under these provisions the arrangements for managing the records of an inquiry commissioned by the Commonwealth in conjunction with a State or Territory only apply as determined by agreement between the Commonwealth and State or Territory concerned.

All records of completed Commonwealth Royal Commissions are also subject to the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act 1982. If you would like to make a Freedom of Information (FOI) request for any RCIADIC records, you should direct your request to: The FOI Coordinator, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, 3–5 National Circuit, Barton ACT 2600. There is a $30 application fee and other charges for processing your request may be imposed.

Types of records created by the Commission

The Commission created or collected about 200 shelf metres of records and these records fall naturally into a number of main groups. These groups are reflected in the chapter headings of this Guide. While separate record series were created by the Commission in each State, they deal with similar material.

For example, in each State there are 'case files', which are specifically related to the individual cases of death in custody investigated by the Commission. Each case of death has a file, or series of files created to record the investigation, exhibits and findings.

A large group of records was also created to control the various types of material raised in the course of investigating the underlying issues. These underlying issues were investigated as the Commission sought to find underlying social, economic or other reasons to explain Aboriginal deaths. Submissions, research papers and other material have been grouped together as series dealing with underlying issues.

As the Commission was a complex and large scale undertaking, a large group of records deals with the administration of the Commission, its staff, travelling arrangements and so on.

Filing system used by the RToyal Commission

The Commission's records do not have a single or consistent method of numbering. For example, the filing system designed by the Commission for its case files was never fully adopted. It was intended that each case file would include the number of the case being investigated, and a letter to indicate the State. For example N/19/562 would be the nineteenth case in New South Wales and the 562nd file raised. Other exhibits would have another letter to indicate what type of evidence was being examined, for example the 'G' in G/22/S12 would indicate a 'General' exhibit. This complex system was made even more complicated when the Commission began to consider material that related to the social customs of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal society generally.

The proposed system was never wholly adopted and several different filing systems were used, with differences between individual States. Occasionally a State will include the Commission's preferred numbering system in the file title, and use a single number sequence to control the files raised. For example, the file that should have the number 'V/2/26' under the Commission's system is controlled as '26' but the title is 'Victorian Case file–V/2–Exhibits'.

In addition, the Commission dealt with matters governed by State powers and arrangements. Individual State police forces have different systems for recording arrest and custody. This meant that the arrangement of material has on occasion led to a single file having three or more control numbers. These could be, for example, the original State police file number, a number allocated by the original Coroners Inquiry and another number allocated by the Royal Commission.

These inconsistencies in the titling and numbering of the original material are reflected in this Guide. However, items are not difficult to locate because the Archives maintains a computerised item listing of all the Commission's records which allows item titles to be searched electronically by keyword. Access to this item database is available in our reading rooms.

Acronyms and abbreviations used by the Royal Commission

The Commission had different people providing secretariat services in each State. This has led to inconsistencies in abbreviations, use of capitals in titles and other minor differences in style. These differences are reflected in this Guide . A full list of acronyms and abbreviations used by the Commission and in this Guide is at Appendix 3.

Access to the Records

The Royal Commission's recommendations on access

Access to records collected or created by government has always been subject to opposing pressures. Access to records is seen as providing a check on arbitrary government power, but privacy considerations and other sensitivities also need to be protected. This dilemma was addressed by the Commission, which consciously tried to balance these often conflicting demands. While the Reports of the Commission were released to the public many of the details of individual cases were not released on the grounds that they were too distressing to the deceased's family and friends.

In considering future access to the unreleased records the Commission made two important recommendations. Recommendation 57 provided:

That governments agree that:
  1. The records of the Commission be held in archives in the capital city of the State in which the inquiry, which gathered those records, occurred; and
  2. A relevant Aboriginal body, for example, the Aboriginal Affairs Planning Authority in the case of Western Australia, be given responsibility for determining access to the material jointly with the normal authority for determining such matters.

A further recommendation dealt specifically with access by Aboriginal people themselves to the records. Recommendation 53 provided:

That Commonwealth, State and Territory governments provide access to all Government archival records pertaining to the family and community histories of Aboriginal people so as to assist the process of enabling Aboriginal people to re-establish community and family links with those people from whom they were separated as a result of past policies of government. The Commission recognises that questions of the rights to privacy and questions of confidentiality may arise and recommends that the principles and processes for access to such records should be negotiated between government and appropriate Aboriginal organisations, but such negotiations should proceed on the basis that as a general principle access to such documents should be permitted.

In weighing up the arguments for and against the granting of public access to its records, the Commission decided, on balance, that it would be appropriate for the material it had gathered to be made as accessible as possible to the wider community. It was thought any increase in understanding between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities could not help but benefit both.

In deciding questions of public access, privacy issues and Aboriginal cultural sensitivities would need to be considered. Also, given that many of the records were created by State and local government under State government powers, formal arrangements for the release of the records needed to be made between the Prime Minister, the State Premiers and the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory. The Commission recommended that appropriate Aboriginal organisations should be involved.

The Formal Access Arrangements

The following formal access arrangements determine the extent to which public access will be granted to the Commission's records.

The arrangements agreed to with the State governments and the Government of the Northern Territory were developed with the aim of dealing with the records in a manner which accords as far as possible with the intentions of the Royal Commissioners and which reflect the standard arrangements for dealing with the records of joint Royal Commissions. In brief, the arrangements as they relate to public access to the records are as follows:

  1. Those records which were publicly available at the time that the Royal Commission was in operation, such as transcripts of open hearings and documents circulated by the Royal Commission will continue to be publicly available.
  2. Individuals and organisations are able to obtain access to information such as submissions and exhibits which they placed before the Royal Commission, and to related transcripts.
  3. Under section 6D(3) of the Royal Commissions Act 1902, a Royal Commissioner can direct that any evidence given before him/her, or the contents of any documents produced at an inquiry shall not be published. Such a direction continues in operation until the records reach the open access period for the purposes of the Archives Act (ie until the records reach 30 years of age). During the Royal Commission, Commissioners directed that certain evidence not be published and ordered the suppression of the names of 16 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people whose deaths they investigated, at the request of family members, and for cultural reasons. Suppressed names and RCIADIC records covered by non-publication directions will not be considered for public access until they are 30 years old (unless the person requesting the records is also the person who provided the particular evidence covered by the transcript, submission or exhibit).
  4. In relation to records that were not originally made public, access will be provided at the discretion of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in consultation with relevant government agencies and Aboriginal organisations. Before release, records will be assessed for possible Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural sensitivities, and for possible State or Territory government sensitivities.
  5. The arrangements do not extend to the administrative records of the Commission. These will only become eligible for public access when they reach 30 years of age.

The formal access arrangements described above are reflected in the access statements that accompany each of the series descriptions provided later in this Guide.

How to obtain access to the records

Step 1
Using the series descriptions provided in this Guide, identify which series you are interested in and make a note of their series numbers (these are the numbers which appear on the right-hand side of each series title). Take note of where the records are held and read the arrangements for public access. These will give you some indication of whether access can be granted, how quickly it is likely to be granted, and what delays might be involved in reaching an access decision on your request.

Step 2
You must now identify the individual record items you wish to see. Visit, write or telephone the office of the Archives in the State or Territory where the records are held and ask to speak to a reference officer. You will need to cite the series numbers you identified in Step 1. You may identify the record items in either of two ways, depending on whether you write, telephone or visit.

  1. If you visit a reading room ask to see the list of item titles which is available for each of the series listed in this Guide. You can search this list to identify the specific items you wish to see. Take note of their item numbers and their location. Alternatively, you may be able to locate the records you want quickly by searching the Archives' RecordSearch database which is available online in our reading rooms and on our website at The database permits 'keyword' and other forms of online searching. Please note that some item titles are not available for online searching by the public. Upon request the Archives staff will be happy to undertake a search of the entire database on your behalf and give you the details you need to request access to the items.

    Using the series numbers you obtained in Step 1 and the item numbers you identified in Step 2, you can lodge a request for access to the records. Depending upon the location of the records and their access status, staff will advise you what will be involved in reaching an access decision on your request and what delay might be involved. Because most records will need to be examined page by page to determine whether they contain sensitive information (and in some cases will need referral to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet), it will usually not be possible to reach a decision on your request immediately.

    Please note that there is no equivalent of the inter-library loan system for archival records. The records are held in the State or Territory in which they were created or collected by the Commission and they are not moved between the Archives offices. Provided your request for access is granted, if you wish to see the original records you will need to visit the relevant public reading room or arrange for a representative to do so, or purchase a photocopy. Archives staff are happy to give photocopy quotes for specific items upon request.

  2. If you cannot visit a reading room you can still obtain assistance to identify the record items you wish to see. Telephone or write to any of the Archives' offices listed in Appendix 8 - LINK. You will need to have identified which series you are interested in or have a specific subject in mind. Staff will undertake searches of the database for you and will send you at no charge a list of item titles obtained from the database for each series or subject you nominate. This list will show the location of the records and their access status. Once you have identified the specific record items you wish to see you should then telephone or write to the Archives office which holds the records and request access. You will need to give us your name and address and the series and item numbers you want. We will then let you know when we have a decision on your request, and if access is approved, we will tell you how you may examine the records or obtain a copy.


No charges apply to the services described above unless copies of records are requested. Copy charges are set out in Fact Sheet 51.

Citing the records

The correct citation of archival records is important both when requesting them from the Archives and when referring to them in written or published works. The correct method of citation will not only help staff of the Archives to more readily locate the records you are seeking, but will also help other researchers to find the material you have used if they wish to examine it for themselves.

The correct form of citation for records held by the National Archives is expressed as follows: the name National Archives of Australia followed by a colon; the series number followed by a comma; and then the item number. An example is:

National Archives of Australia: D4189, 68

The name 'National Archives of Australia' may be abbreviated to 'NAA'.

Where to obtain more information

If you are unsure what to do to request access to the Commission's records or if you have other questions about the records we suggest that you contact the Archives office in your State or Territory by mail, telephone, facsimile or email. The address and contact information for each Archives office is given in Appendix 8.