COVID-19 Inquiry: What is a statutory public inquiry?

In light of the Prime Minister’s commitment that a chair will be appointed by Christmas for a statutory public inquiry into the coronavirus pandemic, we explain the requirements that the Inquiry must meet under the Inquiries Act 2005 and how this will differ from non-statutory inquiries.

What is a statutory inquiry?

Public inquiries are used to investigate matters of serious public concern. These can either take the form of statutory or non-statutory public inquiries.

A statutory public inquiry can be established by a government minister where they consider “particular events have caused, or are capable of causing, public concern or there is public concern[1]. They will appoint an independent chair or panel to lead the Inquiry and investigate the events in question. This will involve hearing oral evidence from witnesses and reviewing large volumes of documents to determine what happened and what steps can be taken to prevent this happening again. Once these investigations are complete, the chair or panel will produce a report setting out their findings and any recommendations. This will be likely to cover what went wrong in the handling of the coronavirus pandemic, who was responsible for these failings, and any lessons which can be learned for the future.

The chair or panel can designate any person, with their consent, as a ‘core participant’ where they have played a direct and significant role in the matters being investigated, have a significant interest in an important aspect of these matters, or are subject to explicit or significant criticism during the Inquiry. Core participants can be awarded funding to appoint legal representatives for the Inquiry who will be able to put forward questions for witnesses on their behalf.

The matters to be investigated will be set out in the Inquiry’s terms of reference, which a spokesperson for the Prime Minister has said will be put forward ‘in due course’. It will not be clear who can become a core participant until the terms of reference are defined, although you can read our previous article for issues which might be covered by the Inquiry.

The Inquiry should involve a wide-ranging investigation into the coronavirus pandemic and the Government’s response. This is in contrast with inquests which are typically limited in scope and can only investigate deaths considered to be unnatural. Guidance produced by the Chief Coroner has stated that COVID-19 is a naturally occurring disease so is not a reason on its own for a death to be referred to a coroner for an inquest[2]. The Inquiry will instead be able to address the circumstances surrounding these deaths which would not otherwise be investigated.  We will explore the differences between inquests and public inquiries in more detail in a future article.

As a statutory inquiry, it will have to follow the requirements of the Inquiries Act 2005 which sets out the powers and rules for how an inquiry operates. Some of the key provisions are set out below:

Presumption of public hearings

The 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 evidence given[3]. This is crucial for ensuring that inquiries are transparent and maintain public confidence in the process. The coronavirus pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on the public as a whole, so it is essential that people are able to follow the evidence and have confidence in the Inquiry’s findings. This is particularly important in light of criticism aimed at alleged comments made by the Prime Minister and the procurement of coronavirus-related contracts to companies with political connections, which have arguably damaged public confidence in the Government’s handling of the pandemic.

Power to compel witnesses to give evidence or provide documents

The 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[4]. It is a criminal offence to fail to comply with such a request or to deliberately conceal or distort any evidence required by the Inquiry[5]. This ensures that the Inquiry will be able to obtain all the necessary evidence to fulfil its terms of reference and fully investigate the handling of the pandemic. It also prevents witnesses from being able to decline to engage with the Inquiry due to possible criticism, thus ensuring that the Inquiry is seen to hold individuals to account for their decisions.

Power to take evidence on oath

The 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. Greater significance is therefore attached to evidence given under oath as witnesses can be held accountable for their evidence[6].

How does a non-statutory inquiry differ?

Non-statutory inquiries are not required to meet the requirements of the Inquiries Act 2005 and can therefore operate with greater flexibility than statutory inquiries. Whilst this may allow them to progress at a quicker pace, the discretion afforded to the chairs of non-statutory inquiries can mean that they do not meet the same standards of public accountability as their statutory counterparts.

For example, the chair of a non-statutory inquiry could choose to hear evidence in private where it involves highly sensitive issues such as matters of intelligence or national security. This would not be acceptable for the future coronavirus inquiry which will require full transparency to gain the support of the general public. It is important that members of the public are able to follow the evidence as it unfolds given personal nature of the matters to be investigated to so many individuals.

Non-statutory inquiries also lack the power to compel witnesses to attend or give evidence under oath. There is instead a reliance on the relevant parties choosing to cooperate with these inquiries. The future coronavirus inquiry is likely to involve a large number of Government officials, who would be expected to comply with requests from the Inquiry, however the same cannot necessarily be said of individuals from companies such as those involved in the abovementioned coronavirus-related contracts.

The public perception of evidence is an important consideration given the lack of trust in the Government’s approach to handling the pandemic. The public need to feel assured that the Inquiry is receiving complete and reliable evidence following over a year of uncertainty. It is hoped that by holding a statutory public inquiry, the public will be able to gain much needed answers about what happened during the pandemic and what lessons can be learned for the future.

Covid Inquiry series

Saunders Law welcomes the announcement of an independent statutory public inquiry into the Government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

This article is part of a series by the Inquiries team at Saunders Law on the prospect of a public inquiry into the coronavirus pandemic.

We have also written articles on imprisonment during the pandemic and coronavirus in prisons.

Saunders Law currently represents core participants in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, Infected Blood Inquiry and Undercover Policing Inquiry. If you've been affected by any of the issues raised above, our inquiries team led by Cyrilia Davies Knight are available on 020 7632 4300 or Make an enquiry and we will contact you.

[1] Section 1, Inquiries Act 2005.

[2] Chief Coroner’s Guidance on COVID-19, 26 March 2020.

[3] Section 18, Inquiries Act 2005.

[4] Section 21, Inquiries Act 2005.

[5] Section 35, Inquiries Act 2005.

[6] Section 17, Inquiries Act 2005.


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