Public Inquiries – Hearings and Oral Evidence

25th July 2023

In the seventh article of our public inquiries article series, we look at hearings and oral evidence.

As set out in our second article in this series, the two most common types of an inquiry structure are modular and phased approaches, with inquiry hearings taking place through the different stages of the modules or phases.

At public hearings, the inquiry will hear oral evidence from witnesses and experts, examine the facts and analyse the evidence to determine what happened and if/where accountability lies. The Inquiries Act 2005 and the Inquiry Rules 2006 set out the rules and procedures for public hearings, and as discussed in our fourth article, Rule 9 requests allow the inquiry to make requests for both written information and oral evidence. Recipients of Rule 9 requests are expected to co-operate promptly and attend to give oral evidence.

Procedure of hearings

At the hearing, Rule 11 of the Inquiry Rules provides that the recognised legal representative of a core participant may make an opening and closing statement to the inquiry panel on the first day of any oral hearings (for each module or phase). If the core participant does not have a recognised legal representative, they may make an opening and closing statement themselves.

Questioning of witnesses

In regard to questioning witnesses, Rule 10 of the Inquiry Rules provides that:

  • A witness who is giving oral evidence at an inquiry hearing can only be asked questions by counsel to the inquiry. However, the witness’ legal representative may ask questions if the chairperson directs them to do so.
  • If a witness is not a core participant (e.g., Witness A) and their evidence directly relates to the evidence of another witness (e.g., Witness B), Witness B’s recognised legal representative can apply to the chairperson for permission to question Witness A.
  • In addition, the recognised legal representative of a core participant can apply to the chairperson for permission to ask questions of a witness giving oral evidence – such requests are often referred to as pre-rule 10 requests.

Public access

Section 18 of the Inquiries Act provides that the chair of the inquiry must take steps to ensure that members of the public can attend the inquiry hearing, or have access to a simultaneous transmission of the hearing (for example via a live video platform).

In addition, the chair must also take steps to allow members of the public to view or obtain a record of evidence and documents provided to the inquiry. However, a recording or broadcast of the inquiry hearing must first be requested or permitted by the chair.

Furthermore, restrictions of public access to public hearings or disclosure or publication of evidence can be imposed by the chair under Section 19 of the Inquiries Act, such as through a restriction notice or restriction order. The chairperson can restrict public access if they feel restrictions are required because it is conducive to the inquiry fulfilling its Terms of Reference, due to a statutory provision, or in the public interest.

Public inquiries series

In our series of blogs on public inquiries, we have also looked at:

Our next article in this series will consider the conclusion of a public inquiry, focusing on the inquiry’s findings and final report.

Blake Morgan’s team of public inquiries solicitors have significant experience in representing clients in public inquiries.

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