What is a public inquiry?

01 April 2022

Author: Stephanie Johnston
Practice Area: Healthcare


It seems that public inquiries are never far from the headlines. Most recently there has been an announcement of the draft Terms of Reference for the UK Covid-19 Inquiry and the work of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, Infected Blood Inquiry and Manchester Arena Inquiry remains ongoing.In Northern Ireland, the Muckamore Abbey Hospital Inquiry is due to commence hearing evidence in May 2022.

What is a public inquiry?

A public inquiry is an independent investigation, commissioned by a government minister to deal with an issue of major public concern.

A public inquiry typically seeks to establish:

  • What happened and why
  • What went wrong and what went right
  • What lessons can be learned

In the UK, public inquiries are conducted by a senior official, usually a Judge or senior barrister, who will review documents, hear witness and expert evidence, reach conclusions and make recommendations. Public inquiries are an inquisitorial rather than an adversarial process, however, with the involvement of legal teams sometimes the line between inquisitorial and adversarial can blur.

Types of Public Inquires

There are two types of public inquiry within the UK; statutory and non-statutory.

Statutory Inquiry

A statutory public inquiry is established under the Inquires Act 2005 (‘the Inquiries Act’), which sets out a framework as to how the inquiry will operate. Key provisions of the Inquiries Act include:

  • A presumption of public hearings
  • Power to compel witnesses to give evidence or produce documents
  • Power to take evidence under oath

An inquiry chair must take reasonable steps to ensure that members of the public are able to attend the inquiry or see and hear the proceedings, and to view a record of the evidence given. This is to ensure that inquiries are transparent.

An inquiry chair will have the power to compel a person to attend the inquiry to give evidence or to produce documents which relate to the matters being investigated. It is a criminal offence to fail to comply with such a request or to deliberately conceal or destroy any evidence required by the inquiry.

An inquiry chair will also have the ability to take evidence under oath, which means that a witness will commit a criminal offence if they give evidence, which they know to be false.

The inquiry will produce a report, or reports of its findings and will make recommendations to the government based on its Terms of Reference.

In the case of the UK Covid-19 inquiry, it is anticipated that one of the Terms of Reference will be to identify the lessons learned from the response to the pandemic and to inform the UK’s preparations for future pandemics.

Non-Statutory Inquiries

Non-statutory inquiries are not governed by the terms of the Inquiries Act and can, therefore, operate in a more flexible manner.

A non-statutory inquiry cannot compel witnesses to give evidence or produce documents. Instead non-statutory inquires rely on the co-operation of organisations and individuals.

If you would like any further information on the issues raised in this article, please contact Healthcare team.

This information is for guidance purposes only and does not constitute, nor should be regarded, as a substitute for taking legal advice that is tailored to your circumstances.