I have no idea how good Sir Martin Moore-Bick, the judge appointed to head the Grenfell inquiry, is at judging the law, but I do have my doubts as to whether the skills and legal knowledge of a judge are the same as the skills needed to conduct a public inquiry. We have had a long string of public inquiries where the legal chair was plainly out of his or her depth (such as the long-running inquiry on historic sexual abuse), or where the lawyer in charge applied inappropriate tests in the belief that what was required was a legal judgment (for example, Lord Clyde demanding standards applied in criminal procedures in cases of child protection). We’ve also had a string of recent inquiries – Francis, Levison, and this week’s Oldham report on Jersey – where it’s been painfully clear that the inquiry chief didn’t know how to write a report. Just look at the ‘executive summaries’. In each case, the authors seemed to be afraid to leave anything out.
A judge needs to manage a hearing, understand and apply the law, discipline opposing parties to focus on the issues that are needed, deal with arguments comprehensively and make a legal determination. That’s a formidable task, requiring considerable expertise, but it’s not at all what’s asked of an inquiry chair. An inquiry is not a trial. It is exploratory rather than adversarial. It calls for lines of communication to be established with all parties, and for consultation and engagement, and for people to be given a hearing and the opportunity to express themselves. (It’s not coincidental that some of the best inquiries have been made by social work professionals – Herbert Laming and Alexis Jay – who are very good at listening.) Evidence has to be sorted, synthesized and selected. There has to be clear public communication about that selection. This is the role of a researcher, not an judge.