Public Inquiries – an overview

13th October 2022

To coincide with the start of the first Preliminary Hearing for Module 1 of the UK COVID-19 Inquiry, we are launching a series of articles delving into public inquiries.

In this first article, we give an overview of public inquiries. We look at why public inquiries are needed and the procedure involved.

What is a Public Inquiry?

Public inquiries are inquisitorial investigations into matters deemed to be of public concern, commissioned by Government Ministers.

The Inquiries Act 2005 created a statutory framework for inquiries into matters of public concern, and is supplemented by the Inquiry Rules 2006. However, this is not the only option open to Ministers: they could instead establish a non-statutory inquiry, a Royal Commission or a departmental inquiry.

Statutory public inquiries (those set up pursuant to the Inquiries Act 2005) confer legal powers upon the Chair to compel disclosure of documents and evidence (both oral and written) where other inquiries are not able to do so.

Why is an inquiry needed?

An inquiry aims not only to establish the truth – what happened, why, and where accountability may lie – but also to alleviate public concern and restore confidence. It provides an independent account of the facts and a mechanism for recommendations so that a reoccurrence of such events does not happen.

It can also be part of the healing process for members of the public affected by the subject matter.

Procedure of an Inquiry

Whilst set up by a Government Minister, once established, an inquiry is independent and will usually be led by a member of the judiciary sitting as Chair. The Minister will likely work with the Chair and the inquiry’s legal team to prepare the Terms of Reference, which will set out the issues to be considered and the information that should be provided to the Minister at the conclusion of the inquiry. These terms can be as broad or specific as required.

Inquiries have no set time frame, although on average most take around two years to conclude. The inquiry into Hyponatraemia-related deaths is the longest so far, taking 13 years and three months to complete. Inquiries cannot determine criminal or civil guilt and consequently, can be delayed whilst criminal investigations take place.

Current Public Inquiries

Public inquiries are becoming increasingly common in the UK – the last time there were no active public inquiries was over 30 years ago. There is often demand for an inquiry from the public, politicians and the media when something goes wrong. There are currently 14 active statutory public inquiries in the UK.

Recent examples include the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, the Independent Blood Inquiry and the COVID-19 Inquiry.

We have also considered the inquiry process, and in particular look at different approaches to an inquiry here, and involvement in a public inquiry here.

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