Public Inquiries: what’s the fuss?
Recently it has been hard to escape talk about public inquiries in the media. However, you may be wondering what are they? What do they actually achieve for those who participate in them and the public at large who pay for them? Our Public Inquiry Associate Solicitor, Shane Smith, explains…
05 April 2023
Public Inquiries: what’s the fuss?
Recently it has been hard to escape talk about public inquiries in the media – this month saw the publication of the third and final report into the Manchester Arena Terrorist Attack by the and the Covid-19 Public Inquiry continues apace, with Modules 1,2 and 3 now underway – covid again is back in the news due to the leaking of former Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s whatsapp messages by journalist Isabel Oakeshott.
These are just some of the recent and ongoing public inquiries you may of heard of but what are they and what do they actually achieve for those who participate in them and the public at large who pay for them?
As a Solicitor who has been instructed in some of the most high-profile public inquiries in recent times, including the , the Manchester Arena Public Inquiry and the Covid-19 Public Inquiry for clients, I am often asked what is the aim, why do they take so long and is it worth the millions of pounds spent on them? The answer isn’t often as simple as the question and it depends from whose perspective the questions are asked. The two ends of the spectrum are that the bill payer will want a swift resolution yet those affected by a tragedy or wrongdoing will want answers irrespective of the length and cost.
So, what is a Public Inquiry?
The Inquiries Act 2005, which is supplemented by the Inquiry Rules 2006, sets out the basic procedural framework for public inquiries. There are two types of public inquiry: statutory and non-statutory.
This blog’s focus is statutory inquiries but it is worth noting that the main difference between the two is that statutory public inquiries are led by a Chairperson, which is often a Senior Judge and sometimes with a panel.
The Chair has the power to compel witnesses and compel the production of document whereas this is not the case for non-statutory inquires, which therefore lack the power of compulsion. Non-statutory inquiries are less formal and are reliant upon the voluntary compliance of witnesses and evidence cannot be taken on oath. That potentially weakens the credibility of any findings.
Statutory public inquiries are major investigations into a particular event or set of events where there is a significant and justified public concern. The Inquiry into the Manchester Arena Bombing caused significant public concern: how could a terrorist build a homemade improvised explosive device and then detonate it in the heart of Manchester without being detected?
Furthermore, was the response flawed and were the emergency services properly prepared for the aftermath? – uncovering what went wrong is a key function of the Inquiry process but so too is learning why something went wrong and for recommendations to be made to put it right to mitigate against the same happening in the future.
The power to establish an Inquiry rests with Government Ministers pursuant to s.1 of the Inquiry Act 2005 – for example, the Prime Minister ordered the setting up of both the Grenfell Tower and Covid-19 Inquiry and the Home Secretary called for the Inquiry into the Manchester Arena Bombing and also the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), in which Slater & Gordon acted for over 120 clients over 7 years. The Minister then appoints a Chair, and possibly a panel to support the Chair (as occurred in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry and IICSA).
Once a Chair has been appointed then the Inquiry’s Legal Team will prepare the Inquiry’s Terms of Reference which sets out the overall scope of the Inquiry and determines the issues to be considered.
There can be, as we have seen with both the Grenfell and Covid-19 Inquiry, public consultation on the scope of the Terms of Reference where the public and other corporate entities respond to suggested Terms of Reference, including perhaps the breadth of the scope and the issues to be considered.
Once the Terms of Reference has been set by the Chair, the Inquiry’s Legal Team will set about deciding procedures and protocols on how to progress the Inquiry. The Chair has wide discretion but the core objective will always be to ensure that the Inquiry is conducted fairly, proportionately and that unnecessary costs are avoided. However, if you are a victim or a bereaved family, in my experience, your overriding desire is to understand what happened - you cannot put a price on uncovering the truth of what happened to you or a loved one.
Once the Inquiry has been established and protocols and procedures are in place, individuals and organisations are invited to apply for Core Participant [“CP”] status. A Chair will consider applications and will then designate a person or organisation as a CP. Once designated then the CP’s will be involved in the Inquiry process and may be able to make opening and closing submissions, receive and inspect disclosure, put questions to witnesses and be legally represented. As a CP you will be able to make an application to secure a funding award to cover the cost of legal representation, which will be assessed on a case by case basis.
Many may ask why put victims, survivors and/or bereaved families through this often time consuming and potentially traumatic process? Well, Inquiries are both backwards looking as well as forwards looking. The Chair will write a report setting out the Inquiry’s findings on what happened and why but also make suitable recommendations to mitigate against the risk of similar events occurring in the future.
Sometimes these reports are written as interim reports during the course of the Inquiry and sometimes at the end of the process. The Inquiry cannot make a finding of individual civil or criminal liability, although in certain circumstances the Inquiry’s findings may lead to civil or criminal liability being established through separate and alternative legal proceedings.
Once the final report is laid before Parliament and made public, the Inquiry is at an end. A serious flaw in the current process, however, is that recommendations have no legal effect and there are no sanctions for the recommendations not being implemented and this needs to change so that the recommendations can be enforced in certain situations.
Hopefully, if the Inquiry has been conducted well, victims and their families should be able to walk away from the Inquiry process with a detailed understanding of what happened, why it happened, who the responsible parties were and what can be done to prevent it from happening again.
As many Inquires are often high profile; they attract significant public interest and scrutiny of the events and exposure of the wrongdoers is on a very public scale and this in and of itself can be a catalyst for change and reform. Therefore, taken as a whole, I believe that public inquiries are an important tool for a safer, more prepared and accountable society.
Our specialist public inquiries team has acted for many individuals and organisations in several high-profile public inquiries, including the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), the Manchester Arena Bombing Inquiry, and the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. Our experts are experienced in handling cases involving highly sensitive matters and are able to professionally and compassionately support victims.
If a public inquiry has been announced which affects you and you believe you should be recognised as a Core Participant, read more about . Alternatively, contact our experts for a confidential discussion of your potential case, please call us on .