Reviewed by: Bilal Rawat
Author: Jason Beer QC
Publisher: Oxford University Press
ISBN: 978-0-19-928777-2
Price: £125

We live in an age of inquiry. On entering office, the coalition government inherited six ongoing inquiries. Within 14 months it had established three more, the most recent of which, the Leveson Inquiry into the phone-hacking scandal, prompts daily headlines.

Calls for an ‘independent public inquiry’ are now a ritual response to events which provoke public anxiety. Of course, the phrase is imprecise. It covers a planning application as much as a controversial event. It presumes an inquisitorial process, public hearings and published findings, but says nothing of the mechanism by which such inquiries are established. Historically, that has been on both a statutory and non-statutory basis.

Despite the public prominence of inquiries, academic articles and reports from diverse bodies, there has never been a book devoted to the topic. This work fills that gap, and with enough authority that it promises to be a significant contribution to practice. Concerned with inquiries established to investigate events which have given rise to public concern, its central focus is the Inquiries Act 2005.

That act repealed the grandfather of public inquiry legislation, the Tribunals of Inquiry Act 1921, and more than 30 other legislative provisions allowing for the holding of an inquiry. Before, an inquiry’s procedure had been a matter for its chairman, informed by the six cardinal principles formulated by Lord Justice Salmon’s 1966 royal commission, the 2005 act (together with the Inquiry Rules 2006), and sought to provide a complete procedural framework for a public inquiry.

Public Inquiries begins by explaining the emergence and development of the public inquiry. It concludes with a discussion about the place of the inquiry in the Commonwealth and the Republic of Ireland. In between, the reader will find a guide to negotiating an Inquiries Act inquiry from its inception through to the publication of its report and beyond. The authors draw on the approach in the 13 inquiries that have already been conducted under the act in its short life, as well as that of major inquiries including Bloody Sunday and Bristol Royal Infirmary.

Those of us with more than an in-depth experience of such proceedings will know the practical issues that can arise. This book achieves its aim of providing a comprehensive and accessible account of the practice and procedure of a public inquiry. A real effort is made to demystify the language.

Interestingly, the book takes a sanguine view of the controversy that accompanied the passing of the Inquiries Bill. The act gives a minister power to restrict the disclosure or publication of evidence obtained by an inquiry or public access to its proceedings. No minister has yet exercised that power, but in 2005 the prospect was seen as a serious inroad into an inquiry’s independence. The authors note the availability of judicial review, but that raises questions. What happens to public confidence if an inquiry’s chairman disagrees with a minister’s exercise of the power to restrict? Does that chairman then seek judicial review?

Finally, the book cannot answer the criticisms of excessive cost and length often levelled at public inquiries, usually once the clamour for something to be done has died down. One rationale behind the Inquiries Act was to limit length and cost. However, the Al-Sweady Inquiry, established in November 2009 under the act, is yet to begin its oral hearings. This illustrates how such criticisms can be easily made while ignoring the painstaking work involved. Whether the act has therefore addressed legitimate public concerns over cost and time is something which may need to await the second edition of this admirable text.

Bilal Rawat is a barrister at 7 Bedford Row. The chambers has taken lead roles in the Bloody Sunday and other high-profile inquiries