Are public inquiries incapable of coming to a decision?

This is a short judgement that could have big consequences. According to Anne O’Loughlin in the Irish Times, Ms Justice Susan Denham has ruled that “to grant an order of prohibition from holding the public hearing as the court had found there was a lack of jurisdiction on the tribunal’s part. She granted a declaration that the tribunal had failed to comply with a paragraph of the amended terms of reference which referred to additional matters to go to public hearing and which set a deadline”. The real meat in this issue is that the tribunal was charged by the Oireachtas to make a decision about what it was, and what it wasn’t going to investigate in future. Denham judges that they fudged the issue:

“I am satisfied the tribunal did not make a decision – it deferred its decision on April 28th, 2005. The document of April 28th clearly indicates a postponement of the decision. This is not a record of a decision to proceed to public hearings. It is a document plainly indicating a contrary decision, a postponement of the decision.”

In turn it raises more searching question: what on earth are these tribunals for?

It begins to look like a grand and very public psychiatrist’s couch in which individual reputations can be impugned, but individuals can neither be convicted nor declared innocent. The result is the worst of both worlds. As one person I spoke to this morning about it, if these matters had been subject to a US style Grand Jury, it would have had the power of subpoena and those found guilty would already have been released from jail.

This matchstick drawn from the base of the inquiry’s raison de etre may just see them topple and fall into disuse. But it should not be the end of the matter. If the Republic is keen to set and keep high public standards, then it need some functional way of dealing clearly, fairly and above all conclusively with anyone accused of misconduct.