Private investigators in Australia

Criminology Research Council grant ; (15/99-00)

This study analysed the nature of the private investigation industry and associated issues of ethics and regulation. A comprehensive study was undertaken of legal powers and controls, and interviews were conducted with 40 practitioners. It was clear that private (and commercial agents) provide a wide range of services to their clients. Such services are vital to the business operations of insurance companies and legal firms. Private agency services also provide a significant public good in the fight to reduce the cost of fraud in the community, and facilitating the achievement of justice for aggrieved parties who are owed money or who are the victims of crimes and other wrongs. The past 10 to 15 years has seen an enormous increase in the use of private agents to investigate insurance fraud and there is currently an increase in the outsourcing of investigations of suspected welfare fraud. Private agents claim to have a very high success rate in recovery of losses, dropping of suspect insurance claims, discovery of offenders, facilitation of fair legal process, and in various other forms of solving crime-related problems for clients. This process contributes to a wider response to the problem of 'hidden crime', primarily in terms of prevention and restitution.

The sensitive nature of private agency work and conflicts with privacy principles can lead to abuses of position - as revealed in two inquiries in New South Wales and Queensland in the past 10 years. However, there is also a growing sense of professionalism among investigators who are strongly supportive of an enlarged role for government in further lifting standards of conduct and the image of the industry. Governments need to pay more attention to means of facilitating the many benefits provided by private agents, in part through improved pre-service training and more active consultation with the industry. In particular, more attention needs to be paid to finding a more productive balance between justifiable requests for information and the interest of personal privacy. There is a case for strengthening controls on access to confidential information held by governments while also expanding controlled access by private agents for legitimate purposes. This arrangement is supported in the review of legislation undertaken in this study, by practitioners who were interviewed and by inquiry reports.