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A Public inquiry is an official review of events or actions ordered by a government body in the United Kingdommarker or Irelandmarker. A public inquiry differs from a Royal Commission in that a public inquiry accepts evidence and conducts its hearings in a more public forum and focuses on a more specific occurrence. Interested members of the public and organisations may not only make (written) evidential submissions as is the case with most inquiries, but also listen to oral evidence given by other parties.

Typical events for a public inquiry are those that cause multiple deaths, such as public transport crashes or mass murders. However, in the UK, the Planning Inspectorate, an agency of the Department for Communities and Local Governmentmarker, routinely holds public inquiries into highways and other transport proposals.

Pressure groups and opposition political parties are likely to ask for public inquiries for all manner of issues. The government of the day typically only accedes to a fraction of these requests. Inquiries are requested not only for the genuine public good, but also in attempt to make the government look bad – either by allowing the inquiry to go ahead and uncover mistakes by the government or by making the government refuse and leave the impression that they have something to hide. A public inquiry generally takes longer to report and costs more on account of its public nature. Thus when a government refuses a public inquiry on some topic, it is usually on these grounds.

The conclusions of the inquiry are delivered in the form of a written report, given first to the government, and soon after published to the public. The report will generally make recommendations to improve the quality of government or management of public organisations in the future.

Republic of Ireland

In the Republic of Ireland, public inquiries ( ), known popularly as tribunals (binse breithimh), have become much used in recent years. While they have been the subject of many dramatic revelations in Irish politics, they have also become known for running long beyond their intended length - the extreme case being the Planning Tribunal (previously the Flood Tribunal) which is currently in its eighth year and has heard 615 days of evidence so far.

Inquiries in the Republic of Ireland are governed under Section 1 of the Tribunals of Inquiry Act of 1921. (This act, being a UK statute enacted before the setting up of the Irish Free State, continues to apply for the time being in the Republic of Ireland). It has, however, been amended since by several Acts of the Oireachtas. The chair of the inquiry is mandated by the Oireachtas (following resolutions in both the Dáil and the Seanad) to carry out the inquiry into matters of urgent public importance by a Warrant of Appointment. The terms of reference of the inquiry are given as part of that warrant.

Tribunals of Inquiry are invested with the powers, privileges and rights of the Irish High Court. It is not a function of a Tribunal to administer justice, their work is solely inquisitorial. Tribunals are required to report their findings to the Oireachtas. They have the power to enforce the attendance and examination of witnesses and the production of relevant documents. Tribunals may consist of one or more persons, though the practise has been to appoint a Sole Member. Tribunals may sit with or without Assessors (who are not Tribunal members). Sittings are usually held in public but can, at the Tribunals discretion, be held in private.

List of Irish public inquiries



United Kingdom

An inquiry is usually chaired by a well-known and well-respected member of the upper echelons of British society, such as judge, lord, professor or senior civil servant.

List of selected UK public inquiries

Fallen Tay Bridge from the north
  • Tay Bridge disastermarker inquiry examined the circumstances leading to the fall of the Tay bridge on December 28, 1879. An express train was lost as the bridge fell, killing some 75 people. The inquiry found that the bridge had been "badly designed, badly built and badly maintained".
  • 2005: Outbreak of E. coli O157 in South Wales, chaired by Professor Hugh Pennington


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