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Public Inquiries in the news

23 May 2024

Public Inquiries are increasingly visible across mainstream media and social media. We explore what this increased exposure means for anyone involved in a public inquiry.  

Like never before we are seeing Public Inquiries delving into recent scandals, live streaming the witness evidence on YouTube, posting content on their websites and thereby providing 'content' for the likes of X, Instagram, LinkedIn and even TikTok. Public Inquiries have never been so public.

The Inquiries Act (2005) is an Act of Parliament in the UK. Its intention was to provide a comprehensive statutory framework for inquiries set up by Government ministers to look into matters of public concern.

Since the act came into force, prominent public inquiries have investigated matters such as the events leading up to the Grenfell Tower fire, the Post Office Horizon IT system's failings and of course, the UK Government's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

It can feel as though public inquiries are becoming more common all the time, with the FT recently claiming that they are 'one of Britain's only growth industries'. In reality though, given the need for a Government minister to set up an inquiry and the complexity and cost of the process, commencing one is not a decision that is taken lightly. In fact, a request for an inquiry into the bankruptcy of Thurrock council in Essex, was recently rejected demonstrating that not all matters of public concern will be investigated.

What can't be ignored though is that the years since the introduction of the Act have also seen the proliferation of mainstream media, and – more importantly – the rapid growth of social media platforms. News of public inquiries can now more easily spread far and wide, including video and audio content giving first-hand accounts of the evidence given.

So what does this mean for public inquiries?

Firstly, it makes it all the more important to get things right and prepare thoroughly for an inquiry. The intention of an inquiry is typically collaborative rather than adversarial, so the inquiry Chair and their team aren't primarily looking to catch people out. However, social media in particular can often be used to share short 'soundbites', which when taken out of context can give an unfair or inaccurate impression of the overall inquiry.

With the right legal advice, you can ensure that you know the intentions of the inquiry team thoroughly and are fully briefed on the background information provided by them. The extent of the information you need to review can be very significant in most public inquiries. It's important that you don't get caught out and show gaps in your knowledge of the matter.

Secondly, it's important to think about the additional support you may need throughout the process. Depending on the nature of the inquiry and the reasons you have been asked to contribute, you may need more specialist advice.

This could include the appointment of subject matter experts, E-discovery software to rapidly review and categorise documents, specialist barristers, or the use of media or reputation management consultants, as part of a wider crisis management plan. This can help you reduce the risk of saying the wrong thing, or allowing your contributions to be used selectively to give an unfair representation of your position.

If you need to contribute to a public inquiry, whatever the reason may be, this increased media scrutiny is definitely something you, and witnesses from your organisation who may be called to give evidence, need to be mindful of.

Remembering that the intention of any public inquiry is to make positive recommendations for the future, it is also your opportunity to give your version of events. Inquiries are an opportunity for openness, candour and transparency. Taking a defensive approach to protect an organisation's reputation rarely works. It is far better to own your shortcomings up front and set them in the appropriate and true context, rather than inviting the Inquiry legal teams to discover your failures for you.

Contact us if you need help or advice on any part of the process for UK Public Inquiries.

Further Reading