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The call for a ‘public inquiry’ into an event of major public concern or into a controversial public policy issue is a common occurrence. The term ‘public inquiry’ refers to inquiries set up by Government ministers to investigate specific or controversial events.

What is a non-statutory inquiry?

Statutory inquiries, nowadays, are held predominantly under the Inquiries Act 2005 but occasionally under other Acts. Details of the 2005 Act and inquiries held under it are set out in another Library research briefing, Statutory public inquiries: the Inquiries Act 2005.

If a public inquiry is ‘non-statutory’ it has still been established by a Government Minister, but not under a specific Act of Parliament.

Types of non-statutory inquiry

This research briefing gives background to and examples of three different types of non-statutory inquiry, explaining the key differences between them. These are:

  • ‘Ad hoc’ public inquiries
  • Committees of Privy Counsellors
  • Royal Commissions

Implications of an inquiry being non-statutory

Holding a non-statutory public inquiry provides greater flexibility on procedural rules. This can make it easier to hear (privately if necessary) evidence that is sensitive for national security reasons (for example). In some situations, this can better secure the cooperation and candour of core participants, such as the intelligence services, police or military.

However, non-statutory inquiries cannot compel witnesses (a) to give evidence under oath or (b) to produce other evidence relevant to the inquiry’s work. So there is a greater risk that uncooperative witnesses or core participants will impede a non-statutory inquiry’s progress.

Notable non-statutory inquiries

Many historic public inquiries were non-statutory, such as the Profumo Inquiry (1963) and the Maze Prison Escape Inquiry (1983-1984). In the early 21st century, several high-profile inquiries, including the Butler Inquiry and Chilcot Inquiry on aspects of the Iraq war were also non-statutory inquiries.

Since the 2005 Act was passed, non-statutory inquiries have become slightly less common. Two recent exceptions are the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel and the current inquiry into matters related to Sarah Everard’s murder.

There are other recent examples of non-statutory inquiries or reviews being converted to statutory inquiries in order to strengthen their evidence powers. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, the Brook House Inquiry and the Post Office Horizon Inquiry were all products of converted non-statutory inquiries or similar internal investigations.

Other types of investigation

Terms used for various types of investigation are often imprecise. Some other types of exercise are often referred to as ‘inquiries’ but are not ‘public inquiries’. And confusingly, some public inquiries are sometimes referred to as ‘reviews’.

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