Public concern

What events give rise to a public Inquiry

Naturally, the categories of events that may lead to the establishment of a public inquiry are not closed. Historically they have ranged from events which suggest a breakdown in the rule of law, such as the Scott Inquiry, to those which have caused a single death, such as the Victoria Climbié Inquiry, through matters that concern numerous deaths, such as the Shipman Inquiry. The common factor in every public inquiry is the pressing public concern that something has happened that must be investigated openly and fairly by a body that is independent of the problem.

Determining public concern

Amnesty International, in pressing for a public inquiry in relation to the case of Patrick Finucane, in whose murder there is a suspicion of state complicity, laid out a set of criteria by which a case can be examined to see whether a public inquiry is required:

  1. Allegations of serious misconduct and prima facie merit have been made against those acting, or purporting to act, on behalf of the state and
  2. Those allegations are sufficiently widespread and are being treated sufficiently seriously by those outside Government to undermine the publicís confidence in the integrity of the State and in the rule of law and
  3. The allegations relate to a sufficiently defined event or series of events to allow an inquiry to be given proper and clear terms of reference and
  4. An inquiry would represent the most effective means of establishing the merit of the allegations made and so of restoring public confidence.

Public concern is notoriously hard to evaluate and there is a danger in the internet age that those who press for a particular issue to be investigated may be able to garner large numbers of supporters who do not in fact feel very strongly. It is easy to post a form which results in a coordinated call for action on a particular subject, but the very ease by which that can be achieved may mask an underlying lack of real concern by those participating. In assessing the true substance of the concern expressed it may be helpful to consider a number of factors:

Scope

How many people are concerned? This factor alone is, of course, subject to internet swamping but must naturally be a starting point.

Status

How well informed are the people who are concerned? There is a marked difference between, for example, law makers and respected NGOs on the one hand and a tabloid campaign simply designed to boost circulation on the other.

What is the nature of their concerns?

There may be a genuine and widespread feeling that something must be addressed but it may be a matter unsuitable for government scrutiny or better dealt with by legislation or in some other way.

How well-founded is their concern?

Certain issues gain currency for a time and which to an uninformed outsider appear to call for urgent and expensive action. However, a better-informed commentator may be conscious that there is no substance in the issue and, furthermore, that the truth will come out. For example, criminal charges may be in contemplation.

Communicating concern

A large number of unconnected people each voicing concern of their own volition is likely to be far more expressive of a widespread feeling that something must be done than is an internet campaign to which an interest group alone subscribes.