Archives orders records freeze for Royal Commission

By Paul Hemsley

The head of the National Archives of Australia, David Fricker has imposed a disposal freeze on records relating to child sexual abuse in possession by Commonwealth agencies that could be required for future reference by a Royal Commission that will investigate cases of child abuse in Australian government institutions.

To assist the landmark investigation, the National Archives has ordered that documents that contain information about incidents that have alleged to have occurred involving Australian government programs or activities, Australian officials or Australian government premises be saved.

The order from the National Archives comes results from Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s announcement on 12th November, 2012 to create the Royal Commission into the Institutional Responses to Child Abuse.

On January 11th, 2013, Governor-General Quentin Bryce then issued Letters Patent to appoint a six-member Royal Commission conduct the investigation.

The Royal Commission will investigate how to better protect children against sexual abuse in the future by improving the way allegations are reported and responded, removing obstacles to appropriate responses and assessing laws that have changed and whether these have improved protection of children.

The intended consequence of the freeze order is that the Royal Commission will have access to relevant government records beyond their scheduled destruction date because of the National Archives’ protection from loss or destruction.

Under normal circumstances, the National Archives normally dictates that records can only be destroyed after it has reached its destruction date as identified in a records authority.

In the order addressed to all Commonwealth agencies, Mr Fricker said that the disposal freeze covers records in all formats, including paper files and documents, microfilm and magnetic tapes, audio and visual recordings and records created digitally.

According to the National Archives, the disposal freeze may also be a “useful reference” for state and territory governments as well as the not-for-profit and private sectors.

New South Wales State Records instructed all state government agencies that they should “take appropriate steps” to ensure that records that the Royal Commission will need are “not destroyed”.

This includes the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry concerning the investigation of certain child sexual abuse allegations in the Hunter region.

The Public Record Office of Victoria said the Royal Commission will impact a number of Victorian government agencies because they may be required to provide evidence to the Commission.

The disposal freeze took effect on 31st January, 2013 and will be enforced until the National Archives gives further notice.

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