Sarah Everard was the victim of kidnap, rape and murder at the hands of a serving Metropolitan Police Officer. On Thursday 30 September he was given a whole life sentence, meaning that he will never be released from prison.

Now that the criminal process has concluded, and can no longer be prejudiced by parallel proceedings, a wider reckoning with alleged institutional failures is possible. To this end, the Home Secretary announced, on Tuesday 5 October, that a public inquiry will be established.

This Insight explains why the Government has decided to set up this public inquiry, what form it will take, and what important decisions still need to be taken about its work.

What has been announced?

Priti Patel has announced a non-statutory public inquiry into “the issues raised by the conviction of” the man who killed Sarah Everard. As she put it:

The public have a right to know what failures enabled [the killer’s] continued employment as a police officer and an inquiry will give the independent oversight needed to ensure something like this can never happen again.

What will the inquiry’s remit be?

The inquiry’s terms of reference have not yet been set. It is expected to look at two related but distinct issues.

Firstly, it will look at the prior conduct and monitoring of the police officer convicted of Sarah Everard’s kidnap, rape and murder. The purpose of this is to establish whether the police could (and therefore ought) to have taken further steps:

  • to prevent harm to Sarah Everard and/or
  • to prevent her killer from serving, or continuing to serve, as a police officer prior to her kidnap.

Secondly, the inquiry is expected to consider where broader institutional lessons should be learned. Concern has been raised about the adequacy of the vetting and monitoring of police officers. Questions have also been asked about the police’s broader approach to protecting women and the prevalence of institutional misogyny within the police. The inquiry will look at aspects of professional standards and discipline, as well as workplace behaviour.

What is a “non-statutory” inquiry?

A statutory inquiry is one initiated under and regulated by an Act of Parliament. Legislation both sets the inquiry’s rules (which ensure procedural fairness) and grants its chair certain powers (particularly powers to compel witnesses and to get evidence). The most common form of statutory inquiry is now initiated under the Inquiries Act 2005.

The Home Secretary has decided, initially at least, to opt-out of the 2005 Act for this inquiry. It will therefore be “non-statutory”. However, it’s not yet clear exactly what form it will take. Some non-statutory inquiries, for example, are established as Committees of Privy Counsellors to enable sensitive material to be disclosed to the chair (or panel).

Why will this inquiry be non-statutory?

The Government says this will speed up the inquiry and help to maintain confidence in the process. It can be slightly easier, and quicker, to set-up a non-statutory inquiry because it is not bound by as extensive procedure rules.

The trade-off for greater flexibility is that the inquiry will not benefit from the same evidence gathering powers. Non-statutory inquiries are more dependent on the voluntary cooperation of witnesses and participants.

Being a non-statutory inquiry is no guarantee of a quick process though. The Chilcot Inquiry (into the Iraq War) was non-statutory and lasted over seven years. The barrister and legal commentator Adam Wagner has argued that statutory inquiries are, if anything, more efficient to set up, since bespoke procedure rules do not have to be developed.

Might the inquiry be converted into a statutory one?

The Government has acknowledged that the inquiry may eventually be converted into a statutory one. This is more likely to happen if the inquiry encounters difficulties obtaining evidence.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in 2014 was originally to be run as a Royal Commission (a type of non-statutory public inquiry). The then Home Secretary Theresa May converted it to a 2005 Act inquiry in February 2015 to strengthen its evidence powers.

Non-statutory independent inquiries have, in the past, struggled to secure as full cooperation from the Metropolitan Police Service as desired. The report of the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel reserved criticism for a lack of cooperation from the Met. The Metropolitan Police commissioner, Dame Cressida Dick, strenuously denied this allegation.

What are the next steps for this inquiry?

The Home Secretary still has two important decisions that will shape the work and progress of the inquiry in the coming months.

The first is to appoint an inquiry chair (and any panel members). Public inquiries are often chaired by a senior or former judge, but this is not a legal requirement.

The second is to set terms of reference. Were this a statutory inquiry, the Home Secretary would have to consult the chair before formally setting terms of reference. Consultation remains both possible and likely for a non-statutory inquiry.

Other investigations and reviews related to Sarah Everard

At the moment, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) is carrying out two investigations directly linked to the officer convicted of Sarah Everard’s murder. It has also confirmed the existence of four other “linked” investigations. The outcomes of these investigations are expected to provide important context for the public inquiry’s work.

The Home Office has said it will write to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) to commission a thematic inspection of vetting and counter-corruption procedures in police forces. HMICFRS has already published a thematic inspection into the police response to violence against women and girls which was commissioned as part of the response to the murder of Sarah Everard.

Dame Cressida Dick has also announced that the Metropolitan Police will appoint an “independent figure” to review its culture and standards.

Further reading

About the author: Graeme Cowie is a researcher specialising in constitutional law at the House of Commons Library.

Image credit:  ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor under Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0)

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