1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Commission

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COMMISSION (from Lat. commissio, committere), the action of committing or entrusting any charge or duty to a person, and the charge or trust thus committed, and so particularly an authority, or the document embodying such authority, given to some person to act in a particular capacity. The term is thus applied to the written authority to command troops, which the sovereign or president, as the ultimate commander-in-chief of the nation’s armed forces, grants to persons selected as officers, or to the similar authority issued to certain qualified persons to act as justices of the peace. For the various commissions of assize see Assize. The word is also used of the order issued to a naval officer to take the command of a ship of war, and when manned, armed and fully equipped for active service she is said to be “put in commission.”

In the law of evidence (q.v.) the presence of witnesses may, for certain necessary causes, be dispensed with by the order of the court, and the evidence be taken by a commissioner. Such evidence in England is said to be “on commission” (see R.S.C. Order XXXVII.). Such causes may be illness, the intention of the witness to leave the country before the trial, residence out of the country or the like. Where the witness is out of the jurisdiction of the court, and his place of residence is a foreign country where objection is taken to the execution of a commission, or is a British colony or India, “letters of request” for the examination of the witness are issued, addressed to the head of the tribunal in the foreign country, or to the secretary of state for the colonies or for India.

Where the functions of an office are transferred from an individual to a body of persons, the body exercising these delegated functions is generally known as a commission and the members as commissioners; thus the office of lord high admiral of Great Britain is administered by a permanent board, the lords of the admiralty. Such a delegation may be also temporary, as where the authority under the great seal to give the royal assent to legislation is issued to lords commissioners. Similarly bodies of persons or single individuals may be specially charged with carrying out particular duties; these may be permanent, such as the Charity Commission or the Ecclesiastical and Church Estates Commission, or may be temporary, such as various international bodies of inquiry, like the commission which met in Paris in 1905 to inquire into the North Sea incident (see Dogger Bank), or such as the various commissions of inquiry, royal, statutory or departmental, of which an account is given below.

A commission may be granted by one person to another to act as his agent, and particularly in business; thus the term is applied to that method of business in which goods are entrusted to an agent for sale, the remuneration being a percentage on the sales. This percentage is known as the “commission,” and hence the word is extended to all remuneration which is based on a percentage on the value of the work done. The right of an agent to remuneration in the form of a “commission” is always founded upon an express or implied contract between himself and his principal. Such a contract may be implied from custom or usage, from the conduct of the principal or from the circumstances of the particular case. Such commissions are only payable on transactions directly resulting from agency and may be payable though the principal acquires no benefit. In order to claim remuneration an agent must be legally qualified to act in the capacity in which he claims remuneration. He cannot recover in respect of unlawful or wagering transactions, or in cases of misconduct or breach of duty.

Secret Commissions.—The giving of a commission, in the sense of a bribe or unlawful payment to an agent or employé in order to influence him in relation to his principal’s or employer’s affairs, has grown to considerable proportions in modern times; it has been rightly regarded as a gross breach of trust upon the part of employés and agents, inasmuch as it leads them to look to their own interests rather than to those of their employers. In order to suppress this bribing of employés the English legislature in 1906 passed the Prevention of Corruption Act, which enacts that if an agent corruptly accepts or obtains for himself or for any other person any gift or consideration as an inducement or reward for doing or forbearing to do any act or business, or for showing or forbearing to show favour or disfavour to any person in relation to his principal’s affairs, he shall be guilty of a misdemeanour and shall be liable on conviction or indictment to imprisonment with or without hard labour for a term not exceeding two years, or to a fine not exceeding £500, or to both, or on summary conviction to imprisonment not exceeding four months with or without hard labour or to a fine not exceeding £50, or both. The act also applies the same punishment to any person who corruptly gives or offers any gift or consideration to an agent. Also if a person knowingly gives an agent, or if an agent knowingly uses, any receipt, account or document with intent to mislead the principal, they are guilty of a misdemeanour and liable to the punishment already mentioned. For the purposes of the act “consideration” includes valuable consideration of any kind, and “agent” includes any person employed by or acting for another. No prosecution can be instituted without the consent of the attorney-general, and every information must be upon oath.

Legislation to the same effect has been adopted in Australia. A federal act was passed in 1905 dealing with secret commissions, and in the same year both Victoria and Western Australia passed drastic measures to prevent the giving or receiving corruptly of commissions. The Victorian act applies to trustees, executors, administrators and liquidators as well as to agents. Both the Victorian and the Western Australian acts enact that gifts to the parent, wife, child, partner or employer of an agent are to be deemed gifts to the agent unless the contrary is proved; also that the custom of any trade or calling is not in itself a defence to a prosecution.

Commissions of Inquiry, i.e. commissions for the purpose of eliciting information as to the operation of laws, or investigating particular matters, social, educational, &c., are distinguished, according to the terms of their appointment, as royal, statutory and departmental. A royal commission in England is appointed by the crown, and the commissions usually issue from the office of the executive government which they specially concern. The objects of the inquiry are carefully defined in the warrant constituting the commission, which is termed the “reference.” The commissioners give their services gratuitously, but where they involve any great degree of professional skill compensation is allowed for time and labour. The expenses incurred are provided out of money annually voted for the purpose. Unless expressly empowered by act of parliament, a commission cannot compel the production of documents or the giving of evidence, nor can it administer an oath. A commission may hold its sittings in any part of the United Kingdom, or may institute and conduct experiments for the purpose of testing the utility of invention, &c. When the inquiry or any particular portion of it is concluded, a report is presented to the crown through the home department. All the commissioners, if unanimous, sign the report, but those who are unable to agree with the majority can record their dissent, and express their individual opinions, either in paragraphs appended to the report or in separately signed memoranda.

Statutory commissions are created by acts of parliament, and, with the exception that they are liable to have their proceedings questioned in parliament, have absolute powers within the limits of their prescribed functions and subject to the provisions of the act defining the same. Departmental commissions or committees are appointed either by a treasury minute or by the authority of a secretary of state, for the purpose of instituting inquiries into matters of official concern or examining into proposed changes in administrative arrangements. They are generally composed of two or more permanent officials of the department concerned in the investigation, along with a subordinate member of the administration. Reports of such committees are usually regarded as confidential documents.

A full account of the procedure in royal commissions will be found in A. Todd’s Parliamentary Government in England, vol. ii.