“Inquiries play a very important role in our constitutional arrangements. The independence and thoroughness of their work both contributes to public trust in those institutions which are subject to review by Inquiries and means that the public places a great deal of trust in the Inquiries themselves.”
(The Rt. Hon Lord Woolf of Barnes)
In thinking about the sort of issues that have triggered a public inquiry in recent years – major allegations of child abuse in British society, press regulation, hospital standards, the death on UK soil of a foreign national, allegations of abuse against detainees in wartime – it is easy to see the range and seriousness of such issues. [Note that the National Archives publishes an index of websites of public inquiries.] No single court process or act of Parliament can match the approach and issues explored in a public inquiry, which provides an understanding of what has taken place, from an inquisitorial as opposed to adversarial perspective; a public catharsis; as well as wide-ranging recommendations for future action. These recommendations are usually not only to prevent a recurrence of the issues that caused the public inquiry but to benefit society more widely. Given their critical importance as a device for ameliorating major public concern, the process by which public inquiries meet their goals should not be neglected.
Inquiring into Inquiries
The Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR) has been ‘inquiring into public inquiries’ since 2011. This has included researching the methodologies and effectiveness of public inquiries over the past 30 years in the UK and considering equivalent processes in other countries. We also conducted a survey of more than 2,000 citizens, which provided evidence of a widespread lack of confidence in the inquiry process and of the impoverished nature of its ‘public’ dimension.
As part of this work, we published a practical resource for those tasked with leading a public inquiry – Setting Up and Running a Public Inquiry: Guidance for Chairs & Commissioning Bodies – which covers process options that can be used to improve the system, from commencement of the inquiry through to delivery of recommendations, and was created by working with those who have been involved in inquiries including inquiry chairs, civil servants, counsel for the inquiry, and victims’ groups. We also held a symposium on the topic, in 2013, and gave evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on the Inquiries Act 2005.
Design of the Process
Our interest in this research lies in our interest in process design for conflict resolution and in the fact that the inquiry process is becoming something of a fundamental tool for social investigation. Calls for inquiries are becoming more frequent where society’s failings are more transparent and objectionable, raising concerns of public interest. Yet the process has received surprisingly little analysis in terms of its design – there is no established mechanism by which judges, government tor the civil service can capture learning from previous inquiries. Inquiries are often criticised for having obfuscated terms of reference, for being too long and too costly, and for failing to achieve what they were intended to do.
Public inquiries can be statutory or non-statutory. Statutory inquiries can be established by ministers and by select committees. Non-statutory, or ad hoc, inquiries are not bound by procedural rules.
By Karl Mackie