Lord Hutton will begin his inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly early this week, the Ministry of Defence said yesterday.
Anxious to conduct the inquiry swiftly, the judge is expected to take between six and eight weeks on a "narrow" remit designed purely to examine the circumstances that led to the scientist's apparent suicide.
The MoD said Lord Hutton would decide the precise scope of the inquiry himself and determine the extent to which it would be held in public or private.
But Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, promised in a statement yesterday that the Government would give its "fullest co-operation", adding it "expects all other authorities and parties to do the same" - a clear dig at the BBC whose Today programme report, which raised questions about the Government's Iraq dossier, propelled Dr Kelly into the public eye when it was revealed in a letter from the minister to the BBC chairman Gavyn Davies that he may have been the source.
Mr Hoon said: "The death of Dr David Kelly is shocking and tragic. Our thoughts and sympathies are with his family. It is only right that we do our utmost to establish the full circumstances surrounding this tragedy."
There are many precedents for the sort of inquiry which will be launched this week. But it is extremely rare for them to be set up to investigate the death of one person. Recent inquiries of this sort were held to establish the truth about BSE and the deaths of football fans at Hillsborough.
An MoD spokesman said the inquiry would look at the circumstances surrounding Dr Kelly's death and whatever Lord Hutton feels is relevant to that. But it will not delve into the related issues and questions surrounding the Iraq war, weapons of mass destruction or the disputed intelligence dossiers.
The appointment of a judge as senior as Lord Hutton - he is a law lord, one of 12 judges in the House of Lords, the highest UK court - is a measure of how seriously the Government regards the events surrounding Dr Kelly's death.
Lord Hutton, 72, has been a judge for 24 years. As Sir Brian Hutton, he was lord chief justice of Northern Ireland for nearly 10 years from 1988.
He was one of five law lords who criticised Lord Hoffman in 1999 for failing to declare his links with Amnesty International when he sat on the case that decided Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator, had no immunity from arrest and extradition for crimes against humanity.
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