Public inquiry

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A tribunal of inquiry is an official review of events or actions ordered by a government body. In many common law countries, such as the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and Canada, such 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. In addition, in the UK, the Planning Inspectorate, an agency of the Department for Communities and Local Government, routinely holds public inquiries into a range of major and lesser land use developments, including highways and other transport proposals.

Advocacy 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. The political decision whether to appoint a public inquiry into an event was found to be dependent on several factors. The first is the extent of media coverage of the event; those that receive more media interest are more likely to be inquired. Second, since the appointment of a public inquiry is typically made by government ministers, events that involve allegations of blame on the part of the relevant minister are less likely to be investigated by a public inquiry.[1] Third, 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 at least one of 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. Recent studies have shown that the reports of public inquiries are not effective in changing public opinion regarding the event in question.[2] Moreover, public inquiry reports appear to enjoy public trust only when they are critical of the government, and tend to lose credibility when they find no fault on the part of the government.[3]


In France, any major project which requires the compulsory acquisition of private property must, before being approved, be the subject of a public inquiry (usually by the prefect of the region or department in which the project will take place); the favourable outcome of such an inquiry is a déclaration d'utilité publique, a formal finding that the project will produce public benefit. This procedure was established by the law on expropriation enacted on 7 July 1833,[4] which extended an earlier law enacted in 1810.[5]

Republic of Ireland[edit]

South Africa[edit]

A number of historically important public inquiries have taken place in South Africa since the advent of full democracy in 1994. A number of which have looked into national scale events such as systematic human rights abuses during apartheid or wide scale corruption.

List of some public inquiries in South Africa[edit]

Inquiry name Announcement date Launch date Report date Chaired by Reason for inquiry
Goldstone Commission 24 October 1991 Richard Goldstone To investigate political violence and intimidation that occurred between July 1991 and the 1994 general election that ended apartheid in South Africa
Truth and reconciliation commission 1996 Archbishop Desmond Tutu Investigate, gather testimony and gain closure on instances of gross human rights abuses during apartheid.
The Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture 21 August 2018 Raymond Zondo Allegations of wide scale corruption and state capture of state entities and state owned enterprises during the administration of President Jacob Zuma.

United Kingdom[edit]

Hong Kong[edit]

In Hong Kong, the Commissions of Inquiry Ordinance was enacted for establishing such a commission. The commission established after the 2012 Lamma Island ferry collision produced a report of its findings which they made public; an internal report was kept confidential.[6] In the 2019–20 Hong Kong protests, one of the five key demands of the protesters, was establishing another commission for the protests itself.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Sulitzeanu-Kenan, R. 2010. Reflection in the Shadow of Blame: When do Politicians Appoint Commissions of Inquiry?, British Journal of Political Science 40(3): 613-634 Archived 28 February 2022 at the Wayback Machine.
  2. ^ Sulitzeanu-Kenan, R & Y. Holzman-Gazit. 2016. Form and Content: Institutional Preferences and Public Opinion in a Crisis Inquiry, Administration & Society 48(1): 3-30 Archived 23 February 2016 at the Wayback Machine.
  3. ^ Sulitzeanu-Kenan, Raanan (2006). "If They Get It Right: An Experimental Test of the Effects of the Appointment and Reports of UK Public Inquiries". Public Administration. 84 (3): 623–653. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9299.2006.00605.x.
  4. ^ Loi du 7 juillet 1833 sur l'expropriation pour cause d'utilité publique
  5. ^ Loi du 8 mars 1810 sur l'expropriation pour cause d'utilité publique
  6. ^ 南丫海難6周年 家屬失望調查報告仍未公開. (in Chinese (Hong Kong)). Hong Kong: Oriental Press Group. 25 September 2012. Archived from the original on 14 January 2019. Retrieved 4 November 2019.

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