The chairman of the public inquiry into the cash for ash scandal has given a hint that his report may come out earlier than some observers had expected.
Speaking at the end of Wednesday’s hearing, Sir Patrick Coghlin said that he does not intend to send routine “Maxwellisation” letters – a formal legal procedure whereby an inquiry can write to those who are to be criticised by it to allow them to respond.
That process leads to inevitable delays and in the case of Sir John Chilcot’s inquiry into the Iraq War, led to widespread public and political criticism after the process was blamed for the delay of more than five years between the final oral evidence and the publication of the report.
The issue arose for the first time in public at the inquiry on Wednesday where final legal submissions are being made by lawyers representing witnesses with considerable involvement in the scheme, many of whom are likely to face criticism in Sir Patrick’s report.
In her closing submission, counsel for the Department of Finance, Christine Smith QC, said that the inquiry had sought to be fair to those from whom it had heard evidence.
She said that “no doubt the inquiry will wish to continue to exercise fairness to witnesses ... by affording them and us the opportunity to comment on any explicit or significant criticism before publication of its report”.
Sir Patrick, whose inquiry has been moved from the old Senate Chamber in Parliament Buildings to a smaller upstairs committee room despite the fact that Stormont is largely empty, made clear that he does not intend to write to everyone facing significant criticism from him.
The retired Court of Appeal judge said: “For the sake of clarity [in relation to] one of your final comments on Maxwellisation letters, you will see the [inquiry’s] protocol. The rules are not applicable in Northern Ireland.
“I am not in favour of a routine Maxwellisation – it takes up too much time and as this is a public inquiry, expenditure has to be seen [to be] justified for the public.
“If there is a point that arises that has not been dealt with in the Section 21s [inquiry notices compelling witnesses to answer questions] or the written evidence or the oral evidence, then if it’s only fair there will be such a letter.
“But apart from that, don’t stand by the door [waiting].”
Ms Smith accepted that it is “a matter fully for your discretion” and added: “I wouldn’t expect anything other than fairness from the panel.”
Sir Patrick has given no indication of when his report will be published but there has been an expectation around Stormont that it is unlikely to be published before Easter.
The inquiry’s own protocol, published before oral hearings began, said that “if the inquiry intends to make any explicit or significant criticism of any person in the report of the inquiry, it may send that person a warning letter setting out the nature, and, as appropriate, the content or gist of the criticism or proposed criticism ... the Chair will give the person concerned a reasonable opportunity to respond to the contents of the warning letter”.
However, the protocol makes clear that it is not legally binding and can be suspended at any point.
Many of those likely to face criticism from the inquiry faced deeply sceptical questioning during their oral evidence, which allowed them some opportunity to respond on various points.