Public inquiries often follow a serious disaster or public scandal, which can have a long-lasting impact on a business or an individual's career and reputation.
These major investigations into events of ‘public concern’ address a wide range of issues such as major transport accidents, large-scale fires causing multiple fatalities, the mismanagement of pension funds, self-inflicted deaths in custody, misconduct and/or decisions made in public office and failures to prevent historic crimes. In the UK, the demand for transparency has led to a significant increase in the use of public inquiries.
The primary purpose of a public inquiry is to establish the facts and make recommendations so important legislative and institutional changes can be made to prevent future recurrence. An inquiry is initiated by a government minister but conducted independently, often by a judge or senior barrister. It can take place on a statutory or non-statutory basis, which impacts the powers available to the Chair to compel witnesses to give evidence or produce documents. There is very limited guidance on the procedures to be adopted and the process is largely at the discretion of the Chair. The procedure will usually involve key preparatory stages such as obtaining evidence, drafting protocols and witness statements. Thereafter the inquiry will hear opening statements, oral evidence and closing statements. Once all of the evidence and submissions have been completed, the Chair will write a report and make recommendations.
Dealing with a public inquiry
A public inquiry can be a very difficult and distressing time for individuals and organizations. We understand the demands and procedural steps of responding to an inquiry, whilst also protecting your interests. Whether you are preparing for an upcoming inquiry, conducting an internal investigation into your organization to understand what has occurred, making an application to become a ‘core participant’ or preparing to give oral evidence as a witness – we can help.
We have experience of liaising with the inquiry on behalf of those involved in the process. This includes managing disclosure requests, drafting witness statements and opening and closing submissions, engaging with employers or employees regarding involvement, managing other repercussions whether employment, commercial or reputation, and challenging decisions by the Chair of an inquiry. We regularly liaise with insurance companies to secure funding for legal representation.
Our lawyers have acted for core participants and key witnesses in major public inquires, including the Grenfell Tower Inquiry and the British Virgin Islands Commission of Inquiry into corruption and abuse in public office. We are acutely aware of the wider repercussions for individuals and organizations who can be subject to intense media scrutiny during the process. We will work closely with you in navigating the collateral reputational, commercial and professional challenges that often arise.
Whilst a public inquiry cannot make a finding of individual civil or criminal liability, separate investigations and proceedings may arise from the evidence produced or findings made during the course of the inquiry.
Whether you are dealing with an investigation conducted by law enforcement or a regulatory body such as the Financial Conduct Authority or Charity Commission, or facing the threat of separate civil proceedings, we can support you with any criminal and/or regulatory investigations or other proceedings that you may face.
Seek advice early
If you or your organization are subject to investigation by a public inquiry, or anticipate that you may be in the future, taking steps at an early stage will ensure you are best placed to manage the process, and the outcome, as effectively as possible.
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