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Coronavirus in the UK: will there be an independent public inquiry into the UK Government’s handling of the Coronavirus epidemic?


There are many precedents for the establishment of independent public inquiries impartially to investigate matters of the gravest public concern.




This brief introduction describes the concept of an independent public inquiry in the United Kingdom and the purposes which it may serve[1].

There are many precedents for the establishment of independent public inquiries impartially to investigate matters of the gravest public concern. Inquiries have been held into major disasters such as transport accidents[2]; the media hacking scandal [3]; and the licensing of arms and defense-related exports to Iraq between 1984-90 in contravention of the UK Government policy[4].

Many independent inquiries are established under statutory powers, some of which are sector specific[5] and some of which are general statutory powers[6]. But many public inquiries into the most serious issues of public concern have been established on an ad hoc basis [7].

Inquiries are typically conducted by senior judges, frequently members of the High Court in England or judges of the Court of Appeal in England. They may sit with expert assessors such as medical or scientific experts.

Government ministers are not constrained in deciding what matters an inquiry should consider. The purpose of an inquiry is to find out what went wrong; to draw conclusions, and to make recommendations. Inquiries often focus on the lessons to be learned so that future decision-making can avoid the same problems and so that public administration can be improved.

The advantages of a public inquiry are that a government can respond immediately to a scandal or a crisis. A government need not admit to mistakes made until the report of an inquiry is published. The independence of the inquiry is ensured by the appointment of respected judges who are used to analysing evidence and acting with scrupulous fairness and objectivity. The process is inquisitorial and not adversarial. This is crucial to ensuring that public confidence in the state[8] is not fatally undermined by proven catastrophic errors.

The disadvantages of a public inquiry are that there can be a public clamour to apportion blame. Inquiries can also take a long time since the issues are often highly complex.

On 20 April, the Guardian, one of the UK’s most respected newspapers, published a letter from Christopher Muttukumaru (chair of the FIDE Fundacion’s International Council). In his letter, Christopher notes the matters of serious concern flowing from the handling of the Coronavirus epidemic in the UK and a few of the questions which arise. He concludes that the probability is that a public inquiry is inevitable (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/19/key-questions-for-a-covid-19-inquiry)


 
 

[1] This brief note is not a comprehensive analysis . It does not distinguish between the powers of the UK Government and those of the devolved administrations in the UK.
[2] Examples are the inquiry into the Ladbroke Grove rail accident in 1999 conducted by Lord Cullen, where 31 people died and 417 were injured; and the inquiry into the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise off Zeebrugge , where 193 people died.
[3] The Leveson Inquiry into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press.
[4] The Scott Inquiry was initially established to determine whether the UK Government had wrongfully withheld evidence in criminal proceedings which would have had the effect of demonstrating the innocence of three businessmen charged with evading export control restrictions on the export of defence equipment to Iraq.
[5] For example, the Cullen Inquiry was established under section 14 (2)(b) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.
[6] For example, there are general powers contained in the Inquiries Act 2005 .
[7] For example the Scott Inquiry which was concerned with the possible misconduct of Government ministers in undermining the interests of justice by their refusal to disclose exculpatory evidence.
 [8] The concept of the “state” differs from country to country. For present purposes, it means central government, regional or local government, other state entities such as hospitals or procurement entities funded by the state, and advisory bodies set up to support the government. Even in the context of a private body such as a private care home, the state may have duties under the law to ensure proper inquiry into the causes of unexplained or violent deaths.

Coronavirus in the UK: will there be an independent public inquiry into the UK Government’s handling of the Coronavirus epidemic?
Christopher Muttukumaru, CB DL, barrister. Member of FIDE Foundation’s Academic Council (based in London). Consultant, Eversheds Sutherland (International) LLP. Muttukumaru was a member of Monckton Chambers in Gray's Inn in London from 2014 to 2018. Christopher was previously General Counsel to the UK Department for Transport where he was the Chief Legal Adviser to eight successive Secretaries of State for Transport between 2001 and 2013. As General Counsel he was also a member of the DfT Executive Board. He is a Bencher of Gray’s Inn.