Public inquiries and investigations: handling witness evidence

Out-Law Analysis | 24 Jul 2020 | 1:21 pm | 2 min. read

Witnesses called before a proposed public inquiry into the UK's handling of the coronavirus pandemic will have to be treated professionally and sensitively if the inquiry is to be a success.

In order to deliver reliability, witnesses must be treated sensitively and 'forensically' interviewed to ensure the integrity of the interview and the accuracy of the evidence; and to avoid re-traumatising them.

Last week, after much speculation, UK prime minister Boris Johnson announced that there would be an independent inquiry into the government's handling of the crisis. Speaking at Prime Minister's Questions on 15 July, Johnson said: "I do not believe that now, in the middle of combating a pandemic, is the right moment to devote huge amounts of official time to an inquiry. But of course we will seek to learn the lessons of this pandemic in the future and certainly we will have an independent inquiry into what happened".

As with all public inquiries, the main aims will be to find out what happened and why it happened, and to learn lessons for the future.

Diaz-Rainey Julian

Julian Diaz-Rainey

Partner

Witnesses must be treated sensitively and 'forensically' interviewed to ensure the integrity of the interview and the accuracy of the evidence; and to avoid re-traumatising them.

A public inquiry is an investigative process that inevitably relies heavily on the testimony of key witnesses. For example the Al Sweady inquiry, which looked at alleged unlawful killings during the Iraq war, approached more than 600 military personnel and about 100 Iraqi witnesses. As a result, it necessarily follows that the evidence contributed by witnesses must be as factual, detailed and accurate as possible if the outcomes of the inquiry are to be reliable.

Major public inquiries and investigations deal with very sensitive issues with examples including death in military custody, historic sexual abuse and, in the case of the Harold Shipman inquiry, the murder of over 200 patients. Many of the witnesses will have been traumatised by the events about which they are providing evidence, and some will have post traumatic stress disorder.

Witness evidence relies on memory, which can be a fragile commodity if not handled with skill and specialist expertise. This is particularly true where a witness has been subjected to any kind of trauma.

Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, instructed Intersol Global, the world leaders in investigative interviewing, to provide training to lawyers to ensure that witnesses are interviewed ethically, sensitively and non-judgementally, in order to enhance its public inquiry and investigations expertise. A number of lawyers gained an Ofqual Level 3 investigative interviewing qualification following the training, making Pinsent Masons the first, and only, commercial law firm in the world to qualify staff to conduct forensic interviews.

At the moment, there is no clear indication of when the independent inquiry into the UK government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic will take place, or the scope. However, it is very likely that in addition to considering the government's general response, more specific issues such as deaths in care homes, the provision of personal protective equipment and the higher death rates of people from BAME backgrounds will also be considered, and it is particularly in these areas that expert, sensitive investigative interviewing will be invaluable.