Frequently Asked Questions
What is a public inquiry?
A public inquiry is an investigation established by the Government in response to major failures in systems or services that have shaken public confidence and become issues of significant public concern. The inquiry is a fact-finding exercise which may assist with the restoration of public confidence, by ensuring accountability for those culpable, creating public records of any failings, and recommending lessons are learnt so that the events under inspection are not repeated.
A public inquiry does not have the authority to hand out sanctions or to make the Government adopt its recommendations. Often, however, an inquiry will unearth evidence which may be taken forward by prosecuting or regulatory authorities, and its recommendations may be implemented into policy and/or law.
There are two different types of public inquiry: a non-statutory inquiry, and a statutory inquiry. A non-statutory inquiry can be set up by any person or body into any given subject and is not governed by the Inquiries Act 2005 or the Inquiry Rules 2006. Importantly, a non-statutory inquiry can be converted into a statutory inquiry.
A statutory inquiry is governed by the Inquiries Act 2005 and has certain additional powers, e.g., to compel witnesses to give evidence or to supply documents. Importantly, only a minister can initiate a statutory inquiry.
Watch our explainer video on inquiries here.
Is this a statutory inquiry?
The Inquiry was established on 10 June 2020 as an Independent Review, and on 30 September 2020 given the formal title of a non-statutory inquiry. It was put on a statutory footing on 1 June 2021, following a request from its Chair, Sir Wyn Williams, and it is now a statutory inquiry.
What powers does the Inquiry have?
Under the Inquiries Act 2005 the Chair has a wide range of powers, including the power to compel the production of documents and to summon witnesses to give evidence on oath. Rule 9 of the Inquiry Rules 2006 entitles an inquiry to send a written request for specific information or evidence, known as a Rule 9 Request. More information can be found in the Inquiries Act 2005.
What is the role of the Chair of the Inquiry?
The Chair is responsible for discharging the Inquiry’s Terms of Reference and establishes the structure and procedures which govern the Inquiry, subject to a statutory duty to act fairly. The Chair is supported by an Inquiry team including: counsel, solicitors, assessors, and the Secretariat. On the conclusion of the Inquiry, the Chair publishes a report making findings of fact and recommendations. The Chair cannot make any findings of civil or criminal liability, nor can he/she award any compensation.
To whom is the Chair accountable?
The Chair acts in an independent capacity. The Inquiry is independent of the Post Office and of Government.
The Chair will provide his report to the Minister.
What is the scope of this Inquiry?
The Inquiry is investigating the failings associated with Post Office Ltd’s Horizon IT system, engineered by Fujitsu, which was an online accounting system implemented nationwide in 1999/2000. Balance discrepancies recorded in the system led to the wrongful suspension and termination of contracts of Subpostmasters on the basis of alleged fraud, theft and dishonesty. Many cases resulted in prosecution. The full scope can be found in the Terms of Reference and List of Issues.
Split into seven phases, the Inquiry is drawing on findings made by Mr Justice Fraser in the Bates and others v Post Office Limited Group Litigation (in particular Judgment (No3) ‘Common Issues’ and Judgment (No 6) ‘Horizon issues’), the judgments of the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) in R v Hamilton and others, and other judgments in which convictions of Subpostmasters have been quashed.
It will consider all other relevant evidence, including evidence on the technical workings of the Horizon system and Fujitsu’s relationship with Post Office Ltd, and the organisational and cultures changes implemented by Post Office Limited as a result of Justice Frasers’ judgments. Other issues of consideration include the delivery of the mediation settlement agreed by Post Office Ltd, the adequacy of processes and information provided to Subpostmasters to meet their contractual obligations with Post Office Ltd, and governance and whistleblowing controls in place. The Inquiry will listen to those that have been affected, understand what went wrong, and assess whether lessons have been learned and concrete changes implemented.
How long will the inquiry take?
The Chair of the Inquiry has published an indicative timeline for public hearings here.
Does it cover the whole of the UK?
The Inquiry is exploring the practices of Royal Mail Group and Post Office Limited across the UK, after a request to investigate Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish devolved matters was approved. More details are available here.
The Inquiry has held Human Impact Hearings in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
How do I follow the public hearings, and can I access records?
Public hearings will be live streamed, with a three-minute delay, on the Inquiry’s YouTube channel. After each hearing, a video of the proceedings and the transcript will be available on the Inquiry’s website here (subject to any restrictions). Recordings of previous hearings are available to watch via YouTube or on the website. The hearings are also open to the public to attend (in some cases subject to prior registration for reasons of capacity).
Are documents the Inquiry receives made public?
The Inquiry regards it as important that its proceedings are conducted in public, and in as open and transparent a manner as is possible. The Inquiry publishes transcripts of all of the hearings on its website (subject to any restriction orders or other legal restrictions). The Chairman will also ensure that further information, including witness statements and other evidence, is published where appropriate. Visit our evidence page for further information.
Why are some pieces of evidence redacted?
Documents provided to the Inquiry can contain large amounts of personal information and may need to be redacted in accordance with Protocol on Redaction, Anonymity and Restriction Orders. Redaction may also be used to exclude information not relevant to the Inquiry’s Terms of Reference.
The Protocol can be found here.
Does the Inquiry have a Freedom of Information policy?
Inquiries are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000 because they are not a public authority as defined in Schedule 1 to the Act. The Inquiry is however ensuring proceedings are transparent and accessible via the website. Following conclusion of the Inquiry, records will be transferred to the National Archives.
I have evidence which I think is relevant to the Inquiry – what should I do?
The Inquiry encourages anyone who holds relevant information or documents to contact the Inquiry. More information can be found on our participation page.
What is a core participant to the Inquiry?
A Core Participant is a person, an organisation or other entity with a significant interest in the Inquiry who has been designated a Core Participant by the Chair. pursuant to Rule 5 of the Inquiry Rules 2006. Core Participants enjoy certain participatory rights in the Inquiry including: making opening and closing statements; receiving disclosure of relevant documents and advance copies of the Inquiry’s report – please see the Protocol here for further information.
What happens when an individual or organisation is not designated as a core participant – are they still able to participate in the Inquiry?
Not being awarded core participant status does not preclude an individual or organisation from coming forward or being called to give evidence as a witness, or from attending hearings in person as a member of the public.
Who are witnesses?
A witness is a person with evidence relating to the matters set out in the Terms of Reference. This could be as a witness to an event or through the records held, including videos, photographs or documentation. Witnesses may be called to give evidence in the form of a written or oral statement at a public hearing via a Rule 9 Request.
An individual or organisation can be both a core participant and a witness – the two roles are not mutually exclusive.
How does the Inquiry identify witnesses?
The Inquiry team analyses a number of sources to identify witnesses, including statements and evidence produced by Core Participants, and other documents produced in response to Rule 9 Requests. Anyone with information that may be relevant to the Inquiry’s Terms of Reference may also come forward.
Watch our explainer video on how the Inquiry finds and calls witnesses here.
Are people legally required to comply with the Inquiry?
Most witnesses who give evidence at statutory public inquiries are invited to do so by consent. However, if a witness with relevant evidence refuses to participate, the Chair may issue a notice under section 21 of the Inquiries Act 2005 compelling the witness to attend and give their evidence.
Who does the Inquiry expect to hear from?
The Inquiry publishes witness lists a week or more in advance of public hearings. An Inquiry will often hear from organisations or individuals that have been designated as Core Participants, though witnesses are not limited to Core Participants. A list of this Inquiry’s Core Participants can be found here.