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The conclusion of Lord Saville’s inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday has brought into sharp focus the need to reduce both the cost and duration of public inquiries, according to some of lawyers involved.
At a total cost of just under £200m, with 2,500 written witness statements and almost 1,000 oral testimonies, the inquiry sprawled over 12 years.
The unprecedented length and cost of the inquiry has been seen as the catalyst for 2005’s Inquiries Act, which itself has sparked criticism from some elements of the legal fraternity.
“It was an historic inquiry in many ways,” says Eversheds dispute resolution partner Peter Jones, who heads the firm’s inquiries and investigations team, established as a result of the firm winning a role as adviser to the Saville Inquiry in 1998.
“I don’t think anybody would disagree that there’s a role for public inquiries in the legal system,” he adds, “but there will always be an issue of managing costs better.”
The provisions of the Inquiries Act include handing government ministers the power to make appointments to inquiry panels and, crucially, to suspend proceedings. It makes the Saville Inquiry not only an unprecedented event, but one that has changed the shape of future investigations.
But Payne Hicks Beach dispute resolution partner Peter Stockwell, who acted for a number of soldiers involved in the Bloody Sunday shootings, believes that any knee-jerk reactions in relation to areas such as escalating costs would be dangerous.
“The prospect of a minister being able to pull the plug on an inquiry is very frightening,” he says.
“It’s very difficult to evaluate finance against the needs for these incidents to be fully examined. The value cannot be understated and cannot be quantified.”
However, one of the problems highlighted by the scope and length of the proceedings is that the strength of any individual’s evidence can become obfuscated by time, local mythology and the influence of the media.
Devonshires litigation partner Philip Barden, who also acted on behalf of some of the soldiers, argues that the scale of an inquiry does not correlate with the validity of its findings. He compares the Bloody Sunday inquiry with shorter investigations carried out looking into the Iraq War and the Marchioness disaster.
“The inquiry took far too long and cost far too much,” says Barden. “It’s to do with the processes and procedures that are applied.
“When a future inquiry is convened it should be done be people who are used to dealing with case management.”
Saville was also unique as it was the first to investigate an event for which another inquiry had already been held. The Widgery Tribunal held in the aftermath of the shootings in 1972 cleared British soldiers but has widely been viewed as a whitewash.
One of the effects of Widgery’s findings was to put pressure on Saville, according to some.
“It’s clear that he couldn’t make the same mistakes that Widgery did,” says Desmond Doherty, who represented a number of the families of those killed. “He not only had to do justice, but also to be seen to do justice.”
Whatever the rights or wrongs of the inquiry and its findings, what is apparent is that Saville’s report will have a dramatic impact on future investigations.