Public inquiries in Ireland

Introduction

A public inquiry is usually set up when something of significant public importance has gone wrong. Its purpose is to find out the facts in relation to the particular matter of public concern, which is identified in the terms of reference of the inquiry.

It does not administer justice and cannot punish or impose penalties on individuals. However, its findings could effect a person or organisation’s reputation. The results of an inquiry might lead to criminal charges or to those involved taking legal action.

As well as investigating the matter, an inquiry may make recommendations to prevent it happening again.

There are a number of different types of public inquiry.

Other public bodies adjudicate in individual cases, and can issue recommendations and determinations on terms that have been set out in statute. This includes bodies like the Workplace Relations Commission and the Residential Tenancies Board.

Tribunals of inquiry and commissions of investigation

Tribunals of inquiry 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 Oireachtas has the power to establish a tribunal of inquiry to investigate matters of public importance. 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 or liabilities of individuals. It simply states, in its report, the results of its investigations and the findings of fact it has made.

A commission of investigation is a less expensive and speedier method of investigating matters of significant public concern. 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. Evidence is usually given to the Commission in private. The commission makes a final report on its findings to a specified Minister.

Parliamentary inquiries

The Oireachtas can nominate members to form a committee to examine policy, legislation, or a particular topic. The committee can seek submissions from experts and interested parties, and must report its findings back to the Oireachtas. The committee uses an investigative process to reach conclusions before making its report. Some committees (for example, the Committee of Public Accounts) are standing committees. This means that they are established after every general election.

Committees of Inquiry

Some committees have been set up to investigate specific incidents or controversies of public importance. Some examples are:

  • Joint Committee of Inquiry into the Banking Crisis
  • Judicial appointments inquiry
  • Arms crisis inquiry
  • Abbeylara inquiry
  • DIRT inquiry

The power of parliamentary committees has been limited by the courts. In 2002, the Supreme Court held that the Houses of the Oireachtas did not have the power under the Constitution to make findings of fact. A proposed change to the Constitution to reverse the effects of this judgment was rejected by the Irish people in a 2011 referendum.

The framework for parliamentary inquiries is now set out in the Houses of the Oireachtas (Inquiries, Privileges and Procedures) Act 2013. 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

Non-statutory inquiries

When an inquiry is set up through an Act of the Oireachtas, it is called a statutory inquiry. Tribunals of inquiry and commissions of investigation are forms of statutory inquiry.

Not all inquiries are set up on a statutory basis. A Minister may commission an inquiry into a matter of public importance. Some examples are:

  • In 2000 the Minister for Health and Children established an inquiry into the retention of human organs without permission
  • In 2012 the Minister for Health and Children commissioned a report 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).

Redress

On some occasions, following an investigation, a 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.

Bodies with specialised investigative powers

There is a range of specialised legislation regulating particular sectors, such as the Companies Act 2014, which provide for investigations. The following are some examples:

Inquiries about Carried out by Legislation
Railway accidents and incidents Railway Accident Investigation Unit European Union (Railway Safety) (Reporting and Investigation of Serious Accidents, Accidents and Incidents) Regulations 2020
Marine casualties that take place in Irish waters, and accidents involving Irish registered vessels Marine Casualty Investigation Board Merchant Shipping (Investigation of Marine Casualties) Act 2000 and associated regulations
Aircraft accidents Air Accident Investigation Unit Air Navigation (Notification and Investigation of Accidents, Serious Accidents and Incidents) Regulations 2009
Companies Inspectors appointed by a court Part 13 of the Companies Act 2014



Page edited: 31 August 2021