The Irish Times view on tribunals of inquiry: a broken model that needs fixing

The right of the community to know the truth must be given a higher priority

Mr. Justice Peter Charleton was the presiding judge in the Disclosures tribunal, which examined the handling of the issues raised by garda whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Mr. Justice Peter Charleton was the presiding judge in the Disclosures tribunal, which examined the handling of the issues raised by garda whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Fundamental questions about the conduct of judicial tribunals have been raised by Supreme Court judge Mr Justice Peter Charleton. The political and legal establishments need to give careful consideration to the issues raised by the judge in an important lecture to the MacGill summer school.

The inordinate cost and lengthy duration of tribunals were among the issues raised but, more significantly, the judge queried the basic principles on which tribunals are conducted here, which are very different from similar tribunals in most other democratic states.

Mr Justice Charleton is in a unique position to offer a critique of the way we do tribunals as he was the lead tribunal barrister in the long-running Morris tribunal, which investigated the conduct of gardaí in Donegal, and more recently was the presiding judge in the Disclosures tribunal which examined the handling of the issues raised by garda whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe.

The judge believes that tribunals are necessary and have performed an important function in Irish society in recent decades. The problem is that the way they are obliged to operate prevents them from carrying out the investigations they have been established to perform.

It goes back to a Supreme Court decision in the Padraig Haughey case of 1972 that someone whose good name may be in danger because of a tribunal investigation has even more rights than a person charged with murder before the Central Criminal Court. This results in witnesses having full legal teams to represent their interests, which make tribunals exceedingly cumbersome at enormous cost to the taxpayer.

These principles have been abandoned in the UK and inquiries there are much quicker, much less expensive and far more successful. The Iraq Inquiry cost around £10 million, and the costs of the Leveson Inquiry into newspaper conduct and phone hacking are estimated at £5.4 million, compared with €150 million for the planning tribunal, €70 million for the Morris tribunal and €65 million-plus for the Moriarty tribunal.

In the US, France, Canada and the UK, the rights of the community to know are paramount, and they trump individual rights. What matters is that the people should know from the tribunal what happened and why. The result is that tribunals in those countries are much quicker, cost much less and tend to have their opinions and recommendations taken seriously.

As the judge pointed out, Irish public inquiries have been turned into something they are not: a trial where only those who might be criticised have rights, and the people paying for the entire process, who are entitled to know what has gone wrong, have been forgotten. This will have to change if tribunals are to be of any value in the future.

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