Statutory vs non-statutory inquiries – what is the difference?

Written 25th August 2023 by Martha Odysseos

Following Lucy Letby’s conviction for the murders and attempted murders of babies at the Countess of Chester Hospital the government announced that a non-statutory independent inquiry will be conducted into the circumstances of the case. Since the announcement, there have been calls from the bereaved families and politicians, amongst others, to convert the inquiry to a full statutory public inquiry in order to give those affected by the case full confidence in the process. In this article Martha Odysseos explores the main elements and differences between each type of inquiry. 

Non-statutory inquiries

Non-statutory inquiries are commissioned by a Government Minister and do not take place under the authority of an Act of Parliament.  There are three forms of non-statutory public inquiries; non-statutory ad hoc inquiries, inquires by a committee of the Privy Council and Royal Commissions.  The main ‘benefit’ of non-statutory inquires is the fact that witnesses and documents in the inquiry are entirely voluntary. The procedure is therefore arguably more flexible and less formal and adversarial when compared to a statutory inquiry.  Non statutory inquiries can also hear evidence in private which is necessary when the issues being considered are of a sensitive nature.  The three different types of non-statutory inquiries are explained below:

1. Non-statutory ad hoc inquiries

Non-statutory ad hoc inquiries can be held in private or public. They are not bound by the procedural rules that a statutory inquiry would be bound by. They do not have the power to compel witnesses to attend nor to compel anyone to produce documents.  Non-statutory ad hoc inquiries rely on voluntary cooperation. They are often used when public bodies are under investigation.  One of the most recent announcements of a non-statutory inquiry was following the death of Sarah Everard. The government announced this inquiry to examine both the murderer’s previous behaviour and to look at any specific issues raised including wider issues across policing such as vetting, professional standards and discipline and workplace behaviour. When this announcement was made the government stated that the inquiry may be converted to a statutory inquiry if needed. 

2. Committees of Privy Counsellors

A committee of Privy Counsellors inquiry is another form of non-statutory inquiry. Its chair and panel are Privy Counsellors who can be briefed about sensitive matters. Such inquiries are usually held for matters involving the military. 

3. Royal Commissions

Royal Commissions are another form of non-statutory inquiries established by Government initiative. These inquiries also lack the statutory powers to compel the attendance of witnesses or the production of documents. These are extremely rare and there has been no new Royal Commissions in the last two decades.  A Royal Commission on the Criminal Justice System was announced in the 2019 Queen’s Speech however to date no progress has been made. 

Statutory public inquiries

Statutory public inquiries are normally held under the statutory provisions of the Inquires Act 2005.  There is little guidance on what procedures an inquiry should adopt and the chair of an inquiry has discretion as to what procedure they should follow.  Subject to any restrictions imposed, there is a general right of public access to inquiry proceedings and information.  The main difference from a non-statutory inquiry is that statutory inquiries benefit from legal power which gives the chair the powers to require the production of evidence and the attendance of witnesses. A person will be guilty of an offence if they fail without reasonable excuse to provide evidence or produce documents as requested by the chair under section 21 of the Inquiry Act 2005. This imminent threat of legal proceedings will in most cases ensure that witnesses provide the required evidence to the inquiry and attend to give evidence when required. 

How can Olliers help me at a public inquiry?

Whether you’re a witness, core participant or professionally involved in an inquiry, the experienced  team at Olliers is perfectly placed to guide you through what is always a complex and challenging process. Our lawyers have acted in some of the most high profile public inquiries of recent times including the Manchester Arena Inquiry, the Brook House Inquiry and the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA). We can help with:
  • whether to apply to be an ‘core participant’ in the inquiry
  • witness summonses
  • the provision of witness statements
  • challenging decisions made by the independent chair
  • instructing expert advocates to appear at court for you
  • how to protect your interests if you are concerned about giving evidence
  • advice about press coverage and the public nature of giving evidence at an inquiry
  • how to deal with other investigations such as those of the police, the IOPC or the Care Quality Commission
If funding for representation is not available from insurers, your employer or public funding (the latter is highly restricted), we can assist you on a privately funded basis and are always happy to discuss your specific needs and circumstances.

Olliers public inquiry cases

  • Representation of two core participants during the Manchester Arena Inquiry
  • Representation of a client in relation to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse – Residential Schools following receipt of Rule 13 warning letter
  • Representation of a number of key witness during the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA), including advice during the police interviews before the inquiry and attendance at the inquiry itself
  • Representation of a number of key witnesses in the Brook House Public Inquiry 
To read more about inquests and inquiries read more here and here.

Article written by Martha Odysseos

Martha Odysseos

Trainee Solicitor


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