Royal Commission: Analysing the recommendations on complaint mechanisms

Complaint one-stop shops and accessible complaint pathways 

Today, in our series analysing the Disability Royal Commission (DRC) report we are again delving into one of the topics covered in Volume 11, Independent oversight and complaint mechanisms. In Chapter 2 the DRC makes recommendations for establishing and maintaining ‘one-stop shop’ complaint reporting, referral and support and creating accessible complaint pathways.  

DANA has long argued that accessible and effective systems of complaints management, escalation and resolution (including remedies and reparations) are critical to protecting the rights of people with disability. The experience of the advocacy sector is that well-functioning accessible complaints mechanisms can effect change and improvements in the disability services system and other systems. However, far too often the capacity to pursue a complaint through existing mechanisms has been hampered by inadequate access to independent advocacy, or limited awareness among people with disability of their rights to complain. These themes have been explored extensively in our work (see Rights, Safety, Quality, December 2022) and in a Research Report commissioned by the DRC: Complaint mechanisms: Reporting pathways for violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation 

We expect disability advocates would be very familiar with these themes as we have heard many speak in detail about the flaws and complexities of current systems and processes. Before turning to solutions, the DRC lays out various reporting barriers:   

  • the challenges of navigating complicated and fragmented patchwork of mechanisms which are currently existing for people with disability to make complaints, including: ombudsmen and complaint mechanisms for health, disability services, workplaces, child abuse and cyber abuse.  
  • handballing of complaints (being redirected between the various mechanisms and/or not hearing back about outcomes);   
  • referral helplines, particularly considering the effectiveness and low awareness and use of the National Disability Abuse and Neglect Hotline operated by WorkFocus Australia;  
  • barriers to reporting including:  
  • language and cultural barriers;  
  • poor outcomes with previous complaints;  
  • negative experiences of police;  
  • there being no trusted pathway for reporting abuse in public places; 
  • difficulties in reporting violence and abuse at home, especially for people with disability who may be reliant on support from their abuser;  
  • poor knowledge of how or who to complain to; 
  • complaint processes being frustrating and exhausting; and  
  • insufficient access to advocacy support to complain 

This final barrier is a very recurrent concern in DANA consultations with advocates and has often featured in our policy submissions. We are pleased that the DRC acknowledges the frequent inaccessibility of complaint mechanisms to those who most need them, including people who are: 

  • from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds; 
  • affected by trauma;  
  • living in group homes where access to advocacy is often impeded;  
  • fear repercussions from providers; and/or 
  • not well-informed, articulate, assertive and empowered complainants.  

Even more importantly we are glad that there is strong recognition that advocacy support is often vital for people with disability to successfully complain or report violence, abuse, neglect and/or exploitation. Increasing access to advocacy for people with disability who wish to make complaints or reports is part of the solution to reporting barriers then outlined.   

Proposed solutions  

Next, the DRC considers a range of suggestions for alternative, collaborative and “co-responding” models and ultimately concludes that what is needed are clear, safe and readily accessible reporting pathways, not to replace existing mechanisms but to make it easier to take the first step towards reporting. 

The DRC recommends each state and territory to establish or maintain a highly visible independent ‘one-stop shop’ complaint reporting, referral and support mechanism to receive complaints or reports from anyone concerned of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disability in any setting. Its other functions would be to:  

  • provide advice and information about appropriate reporting options  
  • with a person’s consent,   
  • make warm referrals to appropriate complaint bodies; 
  • make warm referrals to advocacy and other services who can support them in the complaint process 
  • refer reports to police, including anonymous reports (see discussion below)  
  • collect, analyse and publicly report annual data on complaints and reports received and referrals made  

The DRC leaves it to each state/territory government to decide where the mechanism should be located, ideally within an existing independent organisation with expertise and relationships, so it would be well-equipped to perform these roles and take a human rights and person-centred approach. However, they do encourage each jurisdiction to consider co-locating this mechanism with the adult safeguarding mechanisms recommended in Chapter 1, such as the Ageing and Disability Commission in NSW or Adult Safeguarding Unit in SA, (see our analysis). Elsewhere in the report the DRC also notes the potential for co-location with state and territory Community Visitors Schemes (see our analysis) and the National Preventive Mechanisms under the United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT).  

Warm referrals to advocacy to support people in complaint processes 

With these mechanisms intended as a central point to actively refer people to advocacy and other organisations that can support people to access and participate in the complaint processes, the DRC argues each body needs to have (or build) strong practical links with local advocacy and support options.  

This would be an improvement on existing mechanisms which often do not have strong, constructive relationships with local advocacy organisations and calls to mind some of the recommendations DANA made in our Submission on Independent Disability Advocacy, (see detailed recommendations table on pages 55-59 including increasing government agency awareness of advocacy, and developing mechanisms to connect people with disability experiencing high levels of risk to advocacy organisations).  

While DANA strongly supports this aspect of the recommendation and any other efforts by government systems to ensure that people who most need advocacy are connected to it through warm referrals, we also believe the effective implementation of this recommendation would place considerably greater demand upon the advocacy sector than could be met by the funding increase specified by Recommendation 6.21, (see our analysis and newly published Pre-Budget submission). Presently, sector capacity is not meeting current levels of demand, let alone the unknown levels of unmet need among people whose access to independent advocacy is impeded by gatekeeping, limited awareness of rights or hearsay that there is no advocacy available.  

The model outlined relies on a strengthened advocacy sector, so urgent injections of funding are essential if people with disability are to receive the support these recommendations envisage and rely upon. Otherwise, the task of supporting people referred to make complaints and seek remedies, will compete with existing demand for advocacy and dilute an already stretched pool of resources. 

Relationship with justice system 

The proposed mechanism is intended to also provide (with consent) a supportive non-police pathway for reporting to police, whether for investigation and action or to have their experience recorded (including as anonymous reports). In proposing this the DRC sees benefits of advertised non-police contact points expertise, community trust and engagement, and accessibility of central helplines.  

As we briefly considered in our analysis of the recommendations on adult safeguarding there is well-founded wariness and distrust among people with disability in reporting directly to the police, though hopefully reforms will flow from Volume 8, Criminal justice and people with disability to make the justice system increasingly safe, inclusive and responsive to the needs of people with disability. On this point, the DRC also emphasises that the proposed mechanism must be intended to actively link a complainant to justice processes (where this is desired and agreed to) and not to replace or redirect people with disability away from using the courts and justice systems. As argued in the commissioned research report: “rights to equal treatment and access to justice will be undermined if a complaint mechanism is designed with the intent that it be the primary or exclusive forum”.   

A central point of entry to enhance accessibility – Recommendation 11.4 

To support people to find these “one-stop shops” that are proposed to be located in each jurisdiction and embedded in state and territory structures, the DRC recommends that the Australian Government work with states and territories to establish a national 1800 number, website and other accessible reporting tools to direct people to the relevant independent complaint and referral mechanism in their state or territory. 

Guidelines for organisations – Recommendation 11.5  

The last section of the chapter also calls for a co-design process led by the Commonwealth Ombudsman (with the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission, and other bodies with complaint handling and investigation expertise) to develop guidelines for organisations on implementing complaint handling and investigative practice. As we’ve seen reflected in the evidence before the Royal Commission and heard often from advocates, there are appalling stories and much room for improvement in the internal processes of providers and other organisations, (for instance, see this discussion with advocates on the topic of services providers investigating and responding to responding to violence and neglect held in October 2022).    


Recommendation 11.3 also specifies that the mechanism should be co-designed with people with disability to ensure entry points are accessible to and effective for people with a range of abilities, language and communication needs. Co-design to develop and implement the actions outlined by the DRC is a common component of many of their recommendations and DANA naturally endorses all future reforms be guided by the “nothing about us without us” principle at the heart of the disability rights movement. Yet to genuinely support the inclusion and involvement of people with disability in co-design and decision making (and oversight and governance), resources and development are crucial. In our detailed recommendations to the DRC we specified the need for “dedicated funding for advocacy and disability representative organisations to support building the capacity of people with disability in:  

  • Self advocacy and advocacy skills  
  • leadership and representation  
  • advisory and decision-making processes, including in community, public and private sectors at local, regional and national levels.”  

We hope that much co-design flows from the DRC’s 222 recommendations, yet the voices, experiences and perspectives of those who will be most affected by the various reforms will not be heard or able to genuinely inform their development, if the capacity of representative and advocacy organisations is overstretched by the pace of reform and the disability community is overwhelmed by “consultation fatigue”. It would be extremely disheartening for tick-box consultations or processes that are “co-design” in name only to be undertaken now, when we know that many of the problems with existing systems and processes is their inaccessibility and non-responsiveness to the needs, experiences and human rights of people with disability.  

We call on governments to step up and address the shortfalls in disability advocacy sector capacity, as the transformational change envisaged will rely on a strong, sustainable future for disability advocacy and representation.