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

Statutory or non-statutory?

Public inquiries can take a statutory and non-statutory form. Statutory inquiries are held predominantly under the Inquiries Act 2005. Details of the 2005 Act, and those held under its predecessor are set out in Standard Note 06410. The subject of parliamentary inquiries is covered in Standard Note 6392: Parliamentary Commissions of Inquiry.

This Briefing Paper examines non-statutory inquiries, including: non statutory ad hoc inquiries, committees of Privy Counsellors and Royal Commissions. A number of recent high profile inquiries, including both the Butler and Chilcot inquiries on the Iraq war, have been held as non-statutory inquiries. One of the main reasons for holding a non-statutory inquiry is that matters of intelligence may need to be examined in private.

When are non-statutory inquiries used?

Non-statutory inquiries were used regularly in the 20th Century instead of statutory inquiries to investigate controversial events of national concern. For example, both the Profumo Inquiry (1963) and the Maze Prison Escape Inquiry (1983-1984) were non-statutory inquiries. This paper focuses only on the most prominent recent examples of non-statutory inquiries, such as the Deepcut Review (2004-2006) and the Harris Review (2014-2015), and the Committee of the Privy Council inquiries of Butler (2004) and Chilcot (2009-2016).

Non-statutory inquiries can provide greater flexibility than statutory inquiries for those responsible for determining an inquiry’s procedures. The main differences between statutory and non-statutory inquiries are as follows. First, a non-statutory inquiry has to rely on the voluntary compliance of witnesses. Secondly, it cannot take evidence on oath. Thirdly, statutory inquiries held under the Inquiries Act 2005 operate under a presumption that hearings will take place in public.

The National Archives maintains a list of the archived websites of recent statutory and non-statutory inquiries.

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