It seems that at present in the UK hardly a week goes by without somebody calling for a public inquiry or the government announcing that it intends to launch one. There have been, and remain, many calls for a public inquiry or inquiries into issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are also calls for public inquiries into a range of other issues including human rights issues in supply chains, the use of restraint in prisons, the impact of particular construction projects on the environment, and even the role in politics of the girlfriend of the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.

It is thought that the number of calls in the UK to open public inquiries is at its highest, and the numbers continue to rise: according to the Institute for Government Analysis, 69 public inquiries were launched between 1990 and 2017, compared with 19 in the previous 30 years. As we expect more inquiries to take place in the next few years, there is an increased likelihood of company executives being summoned to speak publicly about the role of their company or industry in an, often thorny, set of events.

Public inquiries are not courts of law: they cannot determine criminal or civil guilt. That said, however, the findings of a public inquiry could lead to criminal or civil liability. Careful consideration should be given by individuals as to whether to participate (if non-participation is an option) and, if relevant, the correct timing of that participation.

In this Client Advisory, we look at what a public inquiry is, whether an entity/individual should agree to participate in a public inquiry (and whether they can in any event refuse), the risks of participating in a public inquiry and, finally, how an entity/individual can best protect its/his/her interests.