Public inquiries are investigations ordered by government ministers to address the existence of public concern about a particular event or set of events. Public inquiries can concern a wide-range of topics, and their specific remit is set out in the terms of reference. However, they are generally guided by addressing three key questions:
In a public inquiry, the appointed chair (Rt Hon Baroness Heather Hallett DBE in the case of the Covid-19 Inquiry) will establish ‘core participants’ and witnesses.
Witnesses are individuals who can provide evidence relating to the matters being considered by the inquiry. They provide evidence to the inquiry, through statements, key documents, or through giving oral evidence during a public hearing.
Core participants play a more significant role in the inquiry. These are generally individuals, organisations or institutions who have significant interest in the matters to which the inquiry relates. Given the greater scrutiny core participants might face, core participants are afforded more significant legal rights. This includes the right to receive disclosure of documentation, the right to make legal submissions through their legal representative, and to suggest lines of questioning to be pursued.
In order to address the three guiding questions of inquiry, the chair of the public inquiry is given significant powers under the Inquiries Act 2005 to require the production of evidence.
This includes the legal power to compel individuals or organisations to give evidence in the form of documents and witness statements, or to provide oral evidence at hearings. It is a criminal offence not to comply with a statutory notice from the inquiry, and our experience with the inquiry process at Duncan Lewis will help you to comply with your legal obligations.
At Duncan Lewis we understand that participants giving evidence at hearings can face high levels of public scrutiny. We also understand that participants will have wider interests at stake, which can seem difficult to protect in the face of the significant media interest that inquiries generate.
Our experience in public inquiries means that we provide legal representation that is sensitive to participants’ reputation management needs. Our specialist team of inquiry lawyers will work closely with you to form an approach that is tailored to your needs in order to keep your reputational, professional, commercial or financial interests protected.
A report setting out the summary of the inquiry’s factual findings is published at the end of a public inquiry. The report is based on the evidence gathered during the course of the investigation, and will be available to all members of the public. While the report has no binding force, its findings of fact about credibility and events can be highly influential on public debate and policy formulation, and may be used to initiate criminal or civil proceedings.