Justice Lowell Goddard opened the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse on 9 July 2015. As has been widely reported, her five principle work streams will include an examination of institutions run by local authorities and charities led by Professor Alexis Jay OBE (one of the Inquiry's appointed experts and author of the report on sexual exploitation of vulnerable children in Rotherham). Adoption, fostering and social work services will also be reviewed and Goddard has promised that "no-one will have immunity from scrutiny" by virtue of their position.
The Inquiry will also examine 25 "paradigm cases" as part of its work, i.e. cases which serve to illustrate the failings which led to the setting-up of the Inquiry. Though there are no details as yet of which cases the Inquiry will look at, it is probable that a number of local authorities will be key participants, both in these mini-inquiries as well as in Professor Jay's generic review.
Given that the Inquiry may last up to a decade, this is likely to impose a significant management and legal burden on local authorities over an extended period. Staff both past and present may be called to give evidence, provide written evidence and explanations and may face cross-examination by the Inquiry's legal team in hearings. Supporting authorities through this process as the Inquiry gears up may be a daunting prospect for already overstretched local government legal teams around the UK.
What this means to local authorities
- local authorities should stake steps now to preserve documents or data which may be relevant to the Inquiry
- requests for information, documentation and witness evidence will need to be managed carefully and will have resource implications;
- local authorities will need to have a rigorous and documented approach to preserving evidence and to dealing with requests for disclosure, to avoid any suggestion of lack of cooperation;
- for staff required to give evidence, careful statement drafting and support during the hearing process will be vital;
- teams may need to deal with urgent issues that come up during Inquiry hearings, for instance requests for further documents or answering specific criticisms; and
- local authorities and their advisors will need to think carefully about their PR strategy, particularly if they are likely to be criticised.
Bevan Brittan's highly experienced Litigation, Advisory and Regulatory team is able to assist with all facets of inquiry work, from dealing with disclosure and confidentiality issues, to representation and assistance at hearings. We are able to provide bespoke advice to authorities on each of the above issues to support you through the Inquiry. We are also exploring with local authorities whether it is possible to save costs by local authorities who have an interest in the Inquiry getting collective advice on how to manage certain aspects of the Inquiry. This builds on our experience in successfully managing large scale collective actions including the Property Searches and Icelandic Banks litigation, as well as on our extensive expertise in relation to public inquiries.