Among the reasons behind calls to hold public inquiries, three would particularly stand out.

First, apart from usually taking long to conclude, the findings of magisterial inquiries are not published. Also, such magisterial inquiries are mainly meant to preserve evidence and establish if any criminal responsibility was involved.

Second, regulators, supposedly autonomous and independent, have often been deemed not to be delivering and too dependent on and appeasing the minister who appoints their board.

Third, a general lack of trust in institutions, regulators and even senior officials in public administration.

Two public inquiries have been held so far. The most recent was into Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder. Earlier, in the mid-1990s, another had looked into allegations of kickbacks in the purchase of bus ticket vending machines.

However, investigations under the Inquiries Act, like those into the death of Bernice Cassar and the situation in prison, have not been so uncommon.

In terms of this law, a board of inquiry is appointed by the prime minister or a minister. The board reports to the prime minister or minister ordering the inquiry and whether the findings are published – in full, in part or not at all – depends on them. Even if the point at issue goes well beyond administrative matters and, indeed, touches upon the state’s positive obligations.

This had led Vincent De Gaetano, a former chief justice, to publicly speak his mind about the Inquiries Act when insisting on proper scrutiny. “We have had the Inquiries Act since 1977 but it is trite knowledge in the civil service and in the political establishment… that the government never commissioned an inquiry under this Act unless it was reasonably sure what the outcome would be,” he pointedly declared.

Indeed, he is one who thinks that “all serious public inquiries, and all inquiries into serious matters, should be conducted in public”. That would entail the prime minister/minister commissioning the inquiry to undertake to publish the findings. Being a public inquiry, the whole report should be released and not just the findings/recommendations, we would add.

This reasoning runs in line with the caselaw of the European Court of Human Rights in relation to the right to life. In this regard, the so-called procedural obligations of the state – in relation to its duty to safeguard the lives of people within its jurisdiction – also apply where an individual either sustains life-threatening injuries or dies “in circumstances potentially engaging the responsibility of the state due to alleged negligence”.

This obliges the state to have “an effective independent judicial system so as to secure legal means capable of establishing the facts, holding accountable those at fault and providing appropriate redress to the victim”.

Furthermore, such an investigation must be started by the state without waiting for the next-of-kin to take the initiative themselves.

The next-of-kin must, however, be involved in any procedure “to the extent necessary to safeguard his or her legitimate interests”.

The bottom line is ensuring “a sufficient element of public scrutiny of the investigation or its results to secure accountability in practice as well as in theory”.

The stress should be on the need to have “an effective independent judicial system”. True, it remains debatable whether the state should set up a public inquiry into every single serious accident/incident. However, appointing a truly independent board of inquiry and setting its terms of remit together with the next-of-kin is very workable.

Public and independent inquiries will go a long way to guarantee effective public scrutiny.

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us