Hutton sets template for judicial inquiries

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Indy Politics

Even before Lord Hutton has published his findings, his inquiry is being hailed as the gold standard for all judicial proceedings of the future.

The speed and efficiency with which the evidence has been submitted and the witnesses cross-examined is proof that Government inquiries need not be spun out for years.

Lawyers argue judicial inquires that take many years to complete, and most do, offend the principle that justice delayed is justice denied.

To streamline his inquiry, Lord Hutton has been able to take advantage of recent legislation that gives senior judges who are investigating deaths the same powers as coroners.

The law first came into force in January 2000 and was successfully used in the inquiries into the Ladbroke Grove rail crash and the serial killer GP Harold Shipman.

But perhaps Hutton's greatest achievement has been in the use of IT. All the main documents, including extracts from Alastair Campbell's diaries, have been displayed on screen and later inspected by anyone who cares to log on to the inquiry's website.

And the public and the press have been able to follow all the proceedings live in rooms adapted for the high-tech presentation of evidence. There are already plans to adapt these IT systems for the next big cases in the Royal Courts of Justice.

The introduction of TV cameras to film yesterday's closing speeches has added to the sense of openness and will undoubtedly advance the case for televising courtroom trials.

But every inquiry is different. The kind of difficulties that have hampered Lord Saville's inquiry into the killing of 14 civilians in Londonderry by the British army have been mostly absent from Hutton.

The Bloody Sunday inquiry, criticised for taking six years and costing up to £100m, has encountered stiff resistance from some of the parties and witnesses. Many issues have had to be settled in the High Court, adding to the cost and extending the length of the inquiry.

No witness has refused Lord Hutton's invitation to testify and all the parties have made great effort to provide the documents requested.

Had Hutton encountered witnesses unwilling to testify, the same people who have praised the smooth-running of his inquiry would no doubt be lamenting the fact the law lord does not have the wide powers of subpoena and contempt under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act of 1921. The Government decided such powers were unnecessary.

By siting the tribunal in the Royal Courts of Justice the inquiry has a greater sense of authority than it would if Lord Hutton was sitting in another building. Accommodation permitting, perhaps other inquiries will be sited similarly.

But the real legacy will be the final report. If it fails to deliver on the main issues or highlights failings in the system, then the unique speed and efficiency will have been achieved at the expense of justice.