Scottish COVID-19 Inquiry – core participant status?

The Scottish COVID-19 inquiry, chaired by Lady Poole, has launched the application process for those who wish to be core applicants. The deadline to apply is 16 September 2022. Rather than inviting applications for each chapter of evidence as it is dealt with, the inquiry seeks applications to cover the whole inquiry. Any late application is unlikely to be granted without a reasonable explanation for the delay.

In this article, we explore which individuals, groups and organisations should consider applying for core participant status and what this means in practice.

Applications for core participant status

So which individuals, groups and organisations should be applying for core participant status? The inquiry will, in deciding whether to grant an application, take account of whether the applicant:

  • Has played a direct and significant role in the matters the inquiry is investigating.
  • Has a significant interest in an important aspect of a matter the inquiry is considering.
  • May be subjected to significant or particular criticism.

Any application will need to explain which of these applies, and explain why the designation of an applicant as a core participant should facilitate the better management of the inquiry, and assist it in fulfilling its terms of reference.

What does being a core participant involve?

The inquiry is committed to transparency and, as with any public inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005 (the Act), will make many documents it obtains publicly accessible. Anyone can submit evidence to the Listening Project (an opportunity to discuss how the pandemic has affected people), attend and follow the public oral hearings and review the documentation published on the inquiry’s website as that becomes available. However, not all documents obtained by the inquiry will be made public. Certain documents will be redacted under the inquiry’s own protocol, for example, to protect somebody’s identity or protect sensitive information, or under the Act in order to reduce the risk of harm or damage. These decisions and processes take time; it can, for good reason, take some time for documents to become publicly available online. Core participants, on the other hand, will have earlier access, and will likely receive additional documents, with less redaction, on a secure and confidential basis.

Any individual or organisation which receives a notice under section 21 of the Inquiries Act 2005 for provision of relevant information, will be required to give evidence to the inquiry, either by disclosure of documents or by oral evidence, depending on what the notice orders. However, only core participants can make statements to the inquiry at public hearings, or ask inquiry counsel to put questions to witnesses. Further, core participants can have legal representatives advise on the evidence and process, and appear for or with them at public hearings. Anyone who is not a core participant can sit in the public gallery, but cannot play an active role.

Finally, core participants receive an advance copy of any report issued by the inquiry, to be kept strictly confidential until published. This affords an opportunity to prepare answers to any anticipated questions from interested parties on findings or recommendations within the report.

Any individual, group or organisation invited by the inquiry to participate is being offered core participant status in recognition of justification for that, and need only accept. Either way, they will still be required to provide evidence to be considered by the inquiry. To refuse means that they will be unable to make statements to public hearings, or to propose questions to inquiry counsel, even for witnesses cited from that body to attend.

Comment

Any fair and just inquiry needs to reach the right answers at reasonable speed and without excessive cost. The number of core participants therefore needs to be managed and the inquiry is clear that some eligible applicants may be rejected.

Great care is therefore needed in completing the inquiry’s application form, to maximise prospects of success for those who wish to be involved.

Related item: COVID-19 inquiry launches in Scotland: implications for participants and stakeholders