Public Law

There was controversy this week at the start of hearings in the Stafford Hospital public inquiry.

The Inquiry was established to look at regulation and monitoring within the NHS trust responsible for the hospital between 2005 and 2009 and at alleged patient neglect and failures in standards of care.

Reports emerged in the press of family members (of former patients of the hospital) being unhappy at the practical arrangements for the hearings. Two rooms had been set up: the ‘main’ hearing room with the Chairman, Inquiry team and those representing ‘Core Participants’ (people or organisations given a special status by the Chairman as having a special interest in proceedings); and a separate room for press and family members into which there was a live stream of proceedings going on the main hearing room.

Certain family members felt that they ought to be allowed to sit in the room where witnesses were giving evidence and there was a protest by the son of a man who died while being treated at the hospital: he delayed the start of the inquiry by occupying a seat in the main room intended for Inquiry counsel.

This incident flags up an interesting issue: where an inquiry is set up to look at an issue which is a matter of public interest, to what extent should that be done ‘in public’? Should everyone who is interested be allowed to see what is happening, or is it for the discretion of the Inquiry Chairman?

In the case of a public inquiry set up under the Inquiries Act 2005 (as the Stafford inquiry is) it is a requirement that the public be provided with ‘access’ to proceedings. The Act provides that the Chairman must take ‘such steps as he considers reasonable’ to secure that members of the public (including reporters) are able either to attend the inquiry or to see and hear a simultaneous transmission of proceedings. Therefore the requirement is not that everyone be allowed to attend the inquiry hearings personally but that ‘reasonable’ steps are taken so that everyone either has access to the actual hearings or can see a video stream of proceedings.

The Chairman can also issue a notice or order restricting attendance at hearings. Obviously in making such an order there is a fine balance to be struck between the fundamental requirement that a public inquiry be ‘in public’ and the need to protect individuals and organisations from harm or damage.

Now in the case of the Stafford Hospital Inquiry, the complaint appears not to be that family members (or the public) were unable to watch what was going on but that they were not able to actually be present in the hearings room (to look the witnesses in the eye, if you like). Strictly speaking, there is no absolute entitlement to the level of access which was being demanded. With relatives and family members, this may be difficult to accept. Often public inquiries arise out of long campaigns by relatives and it is those very people that are most vocal in their demands for answers. It is therefore perhaps understandable that they would be upset at not being able to see first hand those answers being given.