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Baroness Heather Hallett: The former judge leading the Covid public inquiry

The former appeal court judge and crossbench peer has had plenty of experience of the most painful and emotive of cases, writes Sean O’Grady

Friday 26 May 2023 13:15 BST
Baroness Hallett is a former appeal court judge
Baroness Hallett is a former appeal court judge (UK Parliament/PA)

Something must have gone wrong with the appointment of Baroness (Heather) Hallett as chair of the public inquiry into the official response to Covid-19. She is the sort of independent-minded type who’s liable to cause trouble for the government, and this is one government that really doesn’t need any more trouble.

It is not, historically, how things are supposed to work when British governments subject themselves to judicial scrutiny. When, for example, the government of Tony Blair was obliged to launch an investigation into the Iraq war, they chose Lord Hutton for the job, a slightly unusual choice for the post. He was from Northern Ireland, and was suggested by Peter Mandelson, one of nature’s problem-solvers, who knew him from his time as secretary of state for Northern Ireland. Hutton was an honourable man, a fine judge and with impeccable credentials. He was never going to be soothing. But Mandelson knew, or thought, that Hutton was on the more conventional, “establishment” end of the spectrum of outlook. Just as bricklayers or university dons come in all flavours of temperament and opinion, so too do lawyers. They are human.

Much the same might be said for other judges and quasi-judges appointed to other big inquiries that have since become, well, a bit tarnished. Lord Franks, for instance, who looked benignly on the origins of the 1982 Falklands conflict, simply got it wrong. Lord Denning’s dismissal of the appeal against the conviction of the Birmingham Six in 1981 also springs to mind. History is littered with such examples of failure.

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