The law relating to inquiries was reformed and modernised by the Inquiries Act 2013 (Act). The Act largely supersedes the Commissions of Inquiry Act 1908. This note explains the key features of inquiries which proceed under the new Act.
Types of inquiry
The Act makes provision for three types of inquiry:
- Royal Commissions of Inquiry (such as the Royal Commission on the Pike River Coal Mine Tragedy). They are established by the Governor-General, have greater status, and tend to deal with matters of great national importance.
- Other public inquiries (such as the 2007 Commission of Inquiry into Police Conduct). They are established by the Governor-General, and can deal with any matter of public importance.
- Government inquiries (such as the on-going Government Inquiry into the Whey Protein Concentrate Contamination Incident). They are established by Ministers, and tend to deal with more immediate matters.
Powers of an inquiry
All inquiries have the same statutory powers. In particular, an inquiry can:
- regulate its own procedure, subject to the Act and its terms of reference;
- designate any person to be a “core participant” in the inquiry;
- obtain information from any person, e.g. by requiring him or her to produce any documents or things or provide information;
- order any person to disclose to another person any specified document, thing or information;
- summon any person to attend and give evidence before the inquiry;
- receive any evidence whether or not it would be admissible in court proceedings, take evidence on oath or affirmation, and permit a witness to give evidence by any means;
- forbid publication of any evidence or submissions, restrict public access, or hold any part of the inquiry in private (subject to some limitations);
- make findings of fault or recommend that further steps be taken to determine liability (but not in fact determine the civil, criminal or disciplinary liability of any person); and
- make an award of costs against any person.
Duties of an inquiry
All inquiries have the same statutory duties (which may be supplemented by common law duties). In particular, an inquiry must:
- comply with its “establishment instrument” or terms of reference;
- act independently, impartially, and fairly;
- comply with the principles of natural justice;
- have regard to the need to avoid unnecessary delay or cost in relation to public funds, witnesses and other persons participating in the inquiry;
- allow all “core participants” to give evidence and make submissions; and
- submit a final report to the Governor-General or Minister, which must then be presented to Parliament.
The following points are also worth noting:
- Inquiries often proceed in parallel with other investigations (e.g. by the Police, the Serious Fraud Office, WorkSafe New Zealand, or professional bodies). This can lead to complexity. However, there is scope for the inquiry to be postponed if continuing it would be likely to prejudice such an investigation, or a person interested in that investigation.
- Witnesses and other persons participating in an inquiry have the same immunities and privileges as if they were appearing in civil proceedings in court.
- Intentionally obstructing an inquiry is an offence, punishable by a fine not exceeding $10,000. The Solicitor-General may also initiate proceedings for contempt of an inquiry.
- Once an inquiry has reported back, documents created by and received in the course of the inquiry may be susceptible to requests under the Official Information Act 1982.