Tribunals of inquiry


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:

  • The Tribunal of Inquiry into the Beef Processing Industry, 1994. This tribunal was set up to investigate alleged irregularities in the way the beef industry in Ireland was being run.
  • The Tribunal of Inquiry into the Blood Transfusion Service Board, 1997. This tribunal was set up to investigate the infection of large numbers of people in the 1970s and 1980s with contaminated blood products.
  • The Tribunal of Inquiry into Payments to Politicians (Dunnes Stores), 1997. This tribunal was set up to investigate the payment of moneys to politicians.
  • The Mahon Tribunal (Formerly known as the 'Flood Tribunal'). This tribunal was set up to investigate payments to politicians in the context of planning decisions.
  • The Moriarty Tribunal. This tribunal was set up to investigate into payments to politicians, including former Taoiseach Charles Haughey.
  • The Lindsay Tribunal. This tribunal was set up to inquire into the infection with HIV and Hepatitis C of persons with haemophilia.
  • The Laffoy Commission. This tribunal was set up to examine claims of child abuse within the State's industrial schools.
  • The Morris Tribunal. This tribunal was set up to investigate complaints concerning some Gardaí of the Donegal division.

Powers of tribunals of inquiry

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.

Law Reform Commission report

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.

Tribunals of inquiry and 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.

Proposed legislation

The Tribunals of Inquiry Bill 2005 (pdf) aims to consolidate and modernise the law regarding Tribunals of Inquiry.

The Bill contains provisons which:

  • Clarify the process for setting and amending terms of reference of a tribunal
  • Require a tribunal, within three months of its establishment, to produce a statement of estimated costs and duration of the tribunal. This statement must be subsequently amended after significant developments
  • Enable the Government for stated reasons and following a resolution of both Houses of the Oireachtas to dissolve a tribunal
  • Governing the taking of evidence, including a provision to end the costly practice of orally reading-in of evidence already available in written form and not disputed
  • Clarify the situation with regard to the granting of legal representation before a tribunal
  • Enable the responsible Minister will be able to request an interim report on the general progress of an inquiry, or of a particular aspect of an inquiry, from the tribunal
  • Allow tribunal reports to be admissible in civil cases. This section provides that the facts in a report or the opinions expressed therein are uncontested
  • Require the Minister for Justice and Equality, with the consent of the Minister for Finance, to make regulations which will set out maximum amounts of legal fees recoverable from the State
  • Require the Taxing Master of the High Court, when adjudicating on applications for costs in respect of third parties, not to exceed the amounts set out in the regulations.

Page edited: 12 March 2015