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

10 November 2017 by

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.

Related posts:

Welcome to the UKHRB

This blog is run by 1 Crown Office Row barristers' chambers. Subscribe for free updates here. The blog's editorial team is:
Commissioning Editor: Jonathan Metzer
Editorial Team: Rosalind English
Angus McCullough QC David Hart QC
Martin Downs
Jim Duffy

Free email updates

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog for free and receive weekly notifications of new posts by email.




Aarhus Abortion Abu Qatada Abuse Access to justice adoption AI air pollution air travel ALBA Allergy Al Qaeda Amnesty International animal rights Animals Anne Sacoolas anonymity Article 1 Protocol 1 Article 2 article 3 Article 4 article 5 Article 6 Article 8 Article 9 article 10 Article 11 article 13 Article 14 article 263 TFEU Artificial Intelligence Asbestos Assange assisted suicide asylum asylum seekers Australia autism badgers benefits Bill of Rights biotechnology blogging Bloody Sunday brexit Bribery British Waterways Board care homes Catholic Church Catholicism Chagos Islanders Charter of Fundamental Rights child protection Children children's rights China christianity citizenship civil liberties campaigners civil partnerships climate change clinical negligence closed material procedure Coercion Commission on a Bill of Rights common law communications competition confidentiality consent conservation constitution contact order contact tracing contempt of court Control orders Copyright coronavirus costs costs budgets Court of Protection crime criminal law Cybersecurity Damages data protection death penalty defamation DEFRA deportation deprivation of liberty derogations Detention Dignitas diplomacy diplomatic relations disability disclosure Discrimination disease divorce DNA domestic violence duty of care ECHR ECtHR Education election Employment Environment Equality Act Equality Act 2010 Ethiopia EU EU Charter of Fundamental Rights EU costs EU law European Convention on Human Rights European Court of Human Rights European Court of Justice evidence extradition extraordinary rendition Facebook Facial Recognition Family Fatal Accidents Fertility FGM Finance foreign criminals foreign office foreign policy France freedom of assembly Freedom of Expression freedom of information freedom of speech Gay marriage gay rights Gaza Gender genetics Germany Google Grenfell Gun Control hague convention Harry Dunn Health HIV home office Housing HRLA human rights Human Rights Act human rights news Human Rights Watch Huntington's Disease immigration India Indonesia injunction Inquests insurance international law internet inuit Iran Iraq Ireland islam Israel Italy IVF ivory ban Japan joint enterprise judaism judicial review Judicial Review reform Julian Assange jury trial JUSTICE Justice and Security Bill Law Pod UK legal aid legal aid cuts Leveson Inquiry lgbtq liability Libel Liberty Libya lisbon treaty Lithuania local authorities marriage Media and Censorship mental capacity Mental Capacity Act Mental Health military Ministry of Justice modern slavery morocco murder music Muslim nationality national security naturism neuroscience NHS Northern Ireland nuclear challenges nuisance Obituary ouster clauses parental rights parliamentary expenses scandal patents Pensions Personal Injury physician assisted death Piracy Plagiarism planning planning system Poland Police Politics Pope press prison Prisoners prisoner votes Prisons privacy procurement Professional Discipline Property proportionality prosecutions prostituton Protection of Freedoms Bill Protest Public/Private public access public authorities public inquiries quarantine Radicalisation refugee rehabilitation Reith Lectures Religion RightsInfo right to die right to family life Right to Privacy right to swim riots Roma Romania round-up Round Up Royals Russia saudi arabia Scotland secrecy secret justice Secret trials sexual offence shamima begum Sikhism Smoking social media social workers South Africa Spain special advocates Sports Standing starvation statelessness stem cells stop and search Strasbourg super injunctions Supreme Court Supreme Court of Canada surrogacy surveillance sweatshops Syria Tax technology Terrorism The Round Up tort Torture travel treason treaty accession trial by jury TTIP Turkey Twitter UK Ukraine universal credit universal jurisdiction unlawful detention USA US Supreme Court vicarious liability Wales War Crimes Wars Weekly Round-up Welfare Western Sahara Whistleblowing Wikileaks wildlife wind farms WomenInLaw Worboys wrongful birth YearInReview Zimbabwe


This blog is maintained for information purposes only. It is not intended to be a source of legal advice and must not be relied upon as such. Blog posts reflect the views and opinions of their individual authors, not of chambers as a whole.

Our privacy policy can be found on our ‘subscribe’ page or by clicking here.

%d bloggers like this: