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Last Updated: Friday, 18 July, 2003, 19:11 GMT 20:11 UK
Judicial inquiry has many precedents

By Jon Silverman
Legal affairs analyst

For seekers after the truth, the phrase "independent judicial inquiry" has a comforting ring about it.

Lord Denning
Lord Denning investigated the notorious Profumo affair
But in truth, it is a formula which, in the past, has been criticised as the weakest form of inquiry which a government can establish.

This was the reaction when the Scott inquiry into the arms-for-Iraq affair was set up in 1992.

The celebrated Denning inquiry into the Profumo spy scandal in the early 1960s was also attacked - not least by its own chairman - for lacking the powers to require witnesses to give evidence on oath.

By contrast, an inquiry - like the Bloody Sunday tribunal currently sitting - has the full panoply of judicial powers because it was set up under the Tribunals of Inquiry Evidence Act 1921.

Expensive and time-consuming though it is, it has the advantage that justice is more likely to be "seen to be done" than by any other form of process.

The first and most important task facing Lord Hutton, the former Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, who has been named as the likely inquiry chairman, is to decide how to interpret his terms of reference.

Public or private?

According to the prime minister's official spokesman, the remit will be to examine the circumstances leading up to the death of Dr David Kelly.

But it will be for Lord Hutton to determine how wide-ranging that examination needs to be to get at the truth.

And presumably, until he reads himself in, he will not be in a position to say whether evidence should be taken in private or in public.

But that, too, will have a bearing on the credibility of his findings.

On the face of it, Lord Hutton has been awarded something of a poisoned chalice.

Some of the material he may well wish to see is sensitive intelligence data and there will inevitably be tussles behind the scenes with Whitehall about what is appropriate to disclose.

There is also the question of what role journalism played in the death of Dr Kelly.

Lord Scott
Lord Scott's inquiry into arms to Iraq caused misery for the Tories
In this respect, a 1963 inquiry has some uncomfortable parallels.

The Vassall Tribunal was set up to examine the ramifications of a homosexual spy scandal surrounding a naval intelligence officer, John Vassall.

A number of journalists were called as witnesses and two Fleet Street reporters were jailed for refusing to reveal their sources.

History never quite repeats itself - but sometimes it comes close to doing so.


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