Inquiries into historical events have a troubled past: will history repeat itself?

The announcement of a statutory inquiry into the contaminated blood scandal may be a major step towards uncovering the truth for those affected. But an inquiry into historical events has its own unique challenges and potential pitfalls. Before it even commences, can the Government ensure the inquiry retains the confidence of victims, families and the public?

Historical events

As Jim Duffy explains here, the scandal goes back to events of the 1970s and 80s. Around 7,500 patients suffering with haemophilia were treated within the NHS with contaminated blood products from the United States and elsewhere. Many died and many remain terminally ill. Since then, many of the victims and families have been left dissatisfied by the government’s response. Can the inquiry resolve their concerns?

Given the length of time since the events in question, it is no longer enough to narrowly examine the facts of what happened to individual victims. Time is no healer when spent in the dark. Rather, more questions require answers, emotions become fraught, and distrust is entrenched. Wider issues have come to the fore. In particular, as former-MP Andy Burnham stated in Parliament, there is a belief that there has been a “criminal cover-up on an industrial scale”. Earlier inquiries suggest there is a delicate path to tread.

Another £192 million?

The Bloody Sunday Inquiry is a prime example. The first inquiry, by Lord Widgery, taking a mere three months, was too brief, superficial and led to criticisms of a whitewash. But the second, the Saville Inquiry, cannot be criticised for being too brief. The inquiry took 12 years to complete, sat for 427 days, heard from 922 witnesses, took around 2,500 witness statements and was reported as costing a whopping £192 million. It may even be higher.

The Hillsborough Inquests faced a similar challenge. The original inquest verdicts were quashed and the recent inquests were deemed a success, vindicating the beliefs and campaigns of the families of the 96. But it was the longest-running inquest in British legal history, with huge costs. The legal bill for the families alone ran over £63 million.

One can only imagine what the eventual costs might be of other ongoing inquiries into historical events.

Emotional cost

But it is not just the financial cost that should be of concern. Many of those involved, and many victims, will have spent years trying to heal the wounds of the scandal. For those who want to be active and involved, reopening historic, painful events such as these will take a heavy emotional toll. As we know from the early stages of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, the concerns of victims and their families will need to be handled carefully by the inquiry and by all participants. There will also be victims of the scandal who do not want to take part, hoping that the past remains in the past. As the inquiry plays out in the public domain, those involved must be sensitive to their concerns as well.

How will it ensure a success?

First, and most importantly, expectations as to what an inquiry into historical events can really deliver will need to be managed. After so many years, it is likely that many documents will have been lost or destroyed, many of those involved may have passed away and memories will have faded. We must be realistic that a historic investigation may not be able to provide all the answers.

Secondly, an investigation into the past must adopt a proportionate approach. In particular, it must approach oral evidence differently to investigations into contemporary events. Most evidence will be in documentary form. Also, memories do not improve over time. It is unlikely that the oral evidence of 922 witnesses (like Bloody Sunday) will assist and hearing oral evidence from every individual involved is likely to be impractical and unhelpful. In addition, the volume of documents is likely to be vast. Finding a way of sorting through the evidence, investigating and presenting the issues are fundamental.

Thirdly, it must be careful when setting the terms of reference. They must not be too wide so as to become unmanageable. But they must not be too narrow so as to avoid the issues which trouble those involved. A key question which needs to be considered is whether the inquiry should investigate the alleged ‘cover-up’ by members of the government.

It is, as yet, unclear whether this will be included. When the beleaguered PM announced the inquiry in July, she told the BBC, “They deserve answers, and the inquiry that I have announced today will give them those answers, so they will know why this happened, how it happened.” We can only hope for a little more clarity in due course…

A series of podcasts from Law Pod UK on this and other inquiries into historic events will be available on iTunes shortly.

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