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A full statutory inquiry is needed into the Letby murders

A thorough assessment is what families deserve and what only a statutory inquiry can provide.  

Countess of Chester Hospital
The Countess of Chester Hospital in Cheshire where Lucy Letby worked.

The government has announced an inquiry into the events surrounding the murders and attacks committed by Lucy Letby. But as it stands, the inquiry is due to be non-statutory. Emma Norris argues this is a mistake

Most modern inquiries are held under the 2005 Inquiries Act. But the government is proposing that the inquiry into the murders committed by Lucy Letby is non-statutory – and will operate outside the guidelines and powers of most public inquiries. Government spokespeople have emphasised that they think a non-statutory inquiry provides more flexibility – allowing the inquiry into Letby to report more quickly and to be shaped at least in part by the families of her victims. Speed and family involvement are critical – but given the apparent failings of institutions including the NHS, only a full statutory inquiry will do.  

A full statutory inquiry benefits from a strong set of legal powers 

While non-statutory inquiries are subject to fewer procedural rules and can be completed at greater speed, they also have far fewer levers to get to the truth of questions that need answering about the failures to stop Letby. Statutory inquiries – like the Grenfell Inquiry or the Covid Inquiry – benefit from a strong set of legal powers that allow them to compel people to give witness statements, give evidence under oath and release documents and written evidence relevant to the inquiry. Where people fail to comply, legal action can be taken against them. For an inquiry looking into possible NHS institutional and systemic failures in the Letby case, these powers are critically important.  
Without these powers, the inquiry will have to reply on cooperation and goodwill to collect the evidence, testimony and – ultimately – the answers it needs, and which families want and deserve.  

But with such serious allegations and the likelihood of disciplinary action and other civil claims – witnesses will have probably legal representation and will be very unlikely to cooperate without a genuine threat of legal sanction. Only a full statutory inquiry can provide this.  

Statutory inquires can be completed with the speed needed to make urgent changes  

Government spokespeople have also argued that a non-statutory inquiry will be faster. This is important – if changes to systems and institutions are needed to help prevent anything like the Letby murders happening again, then these changes must be made as soon as possible. It is true that full public inquiries are often very lengthy – running over many years – and this is partly down the procedural and evidence-gathering process they involve. But it is wrong that full inquiries must take years to affect change or that non-statutory inquiries have any special power to be fast. Chilcot was non-statutory and took seven years. The Mid Staffordshire Inquiry – which had full legal powers – took only three. The Covid Inquiry is expected to report on some of the most critical questions it is looking at – our preparedness for a pandemic and the quality of government decision making – as early as next year. As our previous research has shown, it is possible to combine the unique powers of a statutory inquiry to force individuals and institutions to cooperate, with the speed needed to make changes quickly. And whatever the form of the inquiry – speed will partly be dictated by how quickly government can move on some of the early decisions – it should appoint a chair as soon as possible. 

This would not be the first time a non-statutory inquiry has been deemed insufficient for the task. In 2000, the non-statutory inquiry into the murders carried out by Harold Shipman was converted into a statutory inquiry after families successfully argued there should be a judicial review of the original decision. More recently, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, the Brook House Inquiry and the Post Office Horizon Inquiry have all been upgraded from non-statutory to statutory inquiries to strengthen their powers. 

A thorough assessment of how Lucy Letby was able to carry out attacks and murders of vulnerable babies in her care for more than a year – and why the systems in place that should have stopped her failed to do so – is what families deserve and what only a statutory inquiry can provide.  

Sunak government
Institute for Government

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