Ireland's Parliament (Oireachtas) has the power to establish tribunals of inquiry to investigate certain matters of public importance. If the Government considers that a particular issue of controversy or dispute is of such public importance that a public inquiry is necessary, it can propose legislation to set up a tribunal of inquiry.
These tribunals are not permanent tribunals. Instead, they are set up with powers to investigate specific matters. They are usually chaired by judges or senior lawyers.
At the end of the investigation, the tribunal submits a report to the Oireachtas, which may contain recommendations.
Some of the tribunals that have been set up in include:
To carry out the investigation, the tribunal is given certain powers, including the power to hold public or private hearings. The Oireachtas may decide that any tribunal that it sets up shall be invested with the powers set out in the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921 to 2004.
This Act provides that a tribunal can make orders to force witnesses to attend and give evidence. It also allows the tribunal to apply to the High Court if a person refuses to give evidence or is in contempt of the tribunal.
The High Court may order a witness to give evidence. If he or she continues to fail to co-operate with the tribunal, the High Court may hold the witness in contempt of court and have the witness imprisoned until he or she has co-operated with the tribunal. It is also a criminal offence to refuse to give evidence or to co-operate with a tribunal.
If the tribunal considers that there is sufficient reason to do so, it can order any person to pay the costs of another person appearing before the tribunal or the costs of the tribunal itself. This may happen if a person fails to co-operate with the tribunal or gives false or misleading evidence.
At the end of the tribunal's investigation, it will submit a report to the Oireachtas setting out the findings it has made. In many cases, a tribunal of inquiry will also be given the power to make recommendations with a view to preventing the same problem happening again. These recommendations may include suggestions for law reform.
The tribunal's function is purely fact-finding and investigative. Although it may make recommendations, it does not make a binding judgement on the rights of individuals. It simply states, in its report, the results of its investigations and the findings of fact it has made.
Any statement or admission made at a tribunal cannot be used in evidence against a person in criminal proceedings. However, sometimes the findings of tribunals can give rise to an investigation leading to independent criminal or civil proceedings.
This means that strict procedures are usually applied in the course of the tribunals. Interested parties usually have legal representation, including a solicitor, a junior counsel and a senior counsel. Witnesses are usually cross-examined.
In May 2005, the Law Reform Commission published a Report on Public Inquiries Including Tribunals of Inquiry (pdf). This Report followed on from a Consultation Paper originally published by the Law Reform Commission in 2003. The Report came in the wake of the establishment of numerous tribunals. These tribunals have examined various matters, including major disasters involving loss of life, and allegations of wrongdoing in land development and the planning process.
The Report's recommendations include procedural changes concerning the selection of an appropriate type of inquiry, drafting appropriate terms of reference, the rights of individuals and organisations to be heard and represented and the awarding of legal costs.
The cost of tribunals of inquiry, including the cost of legal representation of all interested parties, is usually paid by the State.
Significant costs have arisen in recent years with regard to tribunals. The Comptroller and Auditor General published a Special Report into Tribunals of Inquiry (pdf) in December 2008. The report gives an estimate of the costs involved in the more recent Mahon, Moriarty and Morris tribunals.
The Tribunals of Inquiry Bill 2005 (pdf) aims to consolidate and modernise the law regarding Tribunals of Inquiry.
The Bill contains provisons which:
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