Tribunals and investigations - introduction


An investigatory inquiry is usually set up when something major of significant public importance has gone wrong; often because someone has done wrong, acted unlawfully or failed to act. Its purpose is to find out the facts in relation to the particular matter of public concern, which has been identified by its terms of reference.

As well as investigating the matter, the inquiry may make recommendations to prevent it happening again. It does not settle legal rights or impose penalties on individuals.

Irish law makes provision for a number of different types of investigatory inquiry. These range from special inquiries established to investigate a particular event or series of events, such as tribunals of inquiry, to other inquiries such as planning inquiries. Not all inquiries are established using legislation, that is, on a statutory basis.

The findings of a particular inquiry may lead to some other form of inquiry being set up.

Inquiries and investigations

Tribunals of inquiry

Tribunals of inquiry 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.

The duration and costs of tribunals of inquiry have been an issue. The Comptroller and Auditor General published a Special Report into Tribunals of Inquiry in December 2008.

More information can be found in our document on tribunals of inquiry.

Commissions of investigation

Commissions of investigation are less expensive and speedier method of investigating matters than a tribunal of inquiry. It is set up by government order which must be approved by the Dáil and Seanad. The terms of reference are set by the Government or by an individual Minister. The commission makes a final report on its findings to a specified Minister.

There is more information in our document on commissions of investigation.

Sectoral investigations

There is a range of specialised legislation regulating particular sectors, such as the Companies Act 1990, which provide for investigations. The following are some examples:

Investigations are also carried out by other bodies, such as, the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor-General and the Office of the Ombudsman.

Parliamentary inquiries

The Oireachtas has a specialised system of committees which advises on a wide range of legislative, social, economic and financial business. On an ongoing basis, committees publish reports and results of their investigations. A few special Oireachtas inquiries have also been held, such as the Parliamentary inquiry into D.I.R.T. in 1999, but in general they have faced legal challenges.

The Houses of the Oireachtas (Inquiries, Privileges and Procedures) Act 2013, which came into effect in September 2013, provides for the holding of inquiries into matters of public importance by the Oireachtas. Inquiries can be concerned with systems, practices, procedures, policies and the implementation of policy, and the effectiveness of legislative and regulatory systems.

Such inquiries may not make any findings that adversely affect the good name of someone who is not:

  • A member of the Dáil or Seanad, or
  • An officeholder or
  • Someone who is directly accountable to the Oireachtas

A proposed Constitutional amendment to give such powers to the Oireachtas was rejected by the people in 2011.

In November 2014, a Committee of Inquiry into the Banking Crisis was established under the 2013 Act. The purpose of the Inquiry is to inquire into the reasons Ireland experienced a systemic banking crisis.

Statutory and non-statutory inquiries

Not all inquiries are set up on a statutory basis. In 2000 the Minister for Health and Children established the Dunne Post Mortem Inquiry and in 2012 commissioned a report from Professor Walsh, independent researcher, on the practice of symphysiotomy in Ireland.

Sometimes a preliminary inquiry may be held in order to make the work of the main inquiry easier. The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse was initially established on an administrative basis in 1999 before being established on a statutory basis in 2000 under the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse Act 2000.

Further information on inquiries and investigations is available in the Law Reform Commission’s 2003 Consultation Paper on Public Inquiries (pdf).


Following on from an inquiry, often a compensation tribunal or scheme has been set up to compensate the victims of the episode or conduct which was under investigation at the inquiry. The following are examples of such compensation schemes:

  • The Hepatitis Compensation Tribunal was set up in 1995. It provides compensation to those infected with Hepatitis C or HIV as a result of the use of Human Immunoglobulin Anti-D or as a result of the receipt of a blood transfusion or blood product within the State.
  • The Residential Institutions Redress Board was established in 2002. It was set up to compensate those who, as children, were abused while resident in industrial schools, reformatories and other institutions subject to State regulation or inspection.
  • Caranua was established in 2013 under the Residential Institutions Statutory Fund Act 2012 to help those who experienced abuse in residential institutions and have received settlements through the Residential Institutions Redress Board or the courts.
  • The Symphysiotomy Payment Scheme was set up in 2014 to provide ex-gratia payments to women who underwent a surgical symphysiotomy or a pubiotomy in any hospital in the State between 1940 and 1990.

Page edited: 13 March 2015