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52 Mod. L. Rev. 469 (1989)
Public Inquiries: A Cure or a Disease

handle is hein.journals/modlr52 and id is 487 raw text is: PUBLIC INQUIRIES: A CURE OR A DISEASE?1
IF public inquiries are to be known by their fruits, and if their proper
fruits are reforms and improvements in law and practice, there is
probably not a great deal to be said for them. In the field of child
care, it is safe to say that only the very first of the numerous public
inquiries held in the last five decades either brought about or helped
to shape a major reform in the law: Sir Walter Monckton's report in
1945 on the death of Denis O'Neill played an important part in the
genesis of the Children Act 1948. It may be, too, that in the current
overhaul of family law the Cleveland Report,2 and perhaps some
fragments of other recent reports on child abuse, will play a part. For
the rest, if justification is to be found it has to be looked for else-
where, because by the time in recent years that child abuse inquiries
became a prevalent feature of the landscape nobody can any longer
have believed that they were a serious instrument of law reform.
Their effects on practice are another matter, to which I shall return,
but while detectable they have certainly not been uniformly positive.
My thesis is, however, that public inquiries play a significant part in
the management and government of this country, and one which is no
less real because its effect, like the proverbial effect of education, is
The proliferation of inquiries into catastrophes of local authority
child care, and the media attention focused on them, have tended to
constrict our understanding of public inquiries as an instrument of
social and political management in that sensitive area where law
meets policy. The reason I call it a sensitive area is that in a society
which, for a mass of reasons lying beyond my present remit, needs its
law to be or to appear to be a system of Olympian detachment, the
courts cannot afford to get involved in overt policy-making; and yet a
variety of public issues can arise which because they concern policy
and practice rather than rights or wrongs are not litigable, but still
need somehow to be got away from the public shin-kicking contests
which they frequently provoke. In all these situations there has been
a framework of law, usually both substantive and procedural, but the
disaster has occurred either within that very framework or in a
fashion for which the law offers no worthwhile redress, so that
enforcement of the law will be of very little use. It is precisely because
there is no ready resort here to litigation that public rows break out-
a striking reminder in itself of the therapeutic value to civil society of
an Olympian legal system. At the same time, there is commonly no
'This paper is the text of the Mary Robertson Lecture delivered at Nottingham
University on October 6, 1988. A debt of gratitude is owed to Ms. Shurouk al Sabbah
and to Professor A. W. Bradley for advice on source material.
2 Report of Inquiry into Child Abuse in Cleveland, 1987; Cm. 412.

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