Sarah Everard’s murder in March 2021 by serving police officer Wayne Couzens has prompted criticism of various aspects of the Metropolitan Police’s procedures and culture. These criticisms include – but are not limited to – the Met’s approach to violence against women, its vetting procedures, how it disciplines police officers, and how the use of police power is monitored.
On 5th October, Home Secretary Priti Patel responded to criticism of the force by announcing an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the case. The Metropolitan Police also said it will hold an internal investigation into its ‘standards and culture’, to be led by Baroness Casey. The IOPC also announced a review.
At the time of writing, the Government has not confirmed the terms of reference for the inquiry. Nor has it revealed who will lead it, nor when it will begin. Despite this uncertainty, it seems clear that the inquiry will, at least for now, be ‘non statutory’, meaning it will not take place under the Inquiries Act 2005 in the manner of, for example, the ongoing Undercover Policing Inquiry or the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.
In our view as specialists in both public inquiry law and actions against the police, this is a mistake which will lessen the effectiveness of any inquiry and potentially lead to serious injustice, enabling the Met to avoid accountability and limiting the opportunity for all police forces to learn necessary lessons from this tragedy.
Why no statutory Everard inquiry?
The main reason for believing that the inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Sarah Everard’s murder will be non-statutory are the various recent media reports in which ‘Government sources’ suggest this is preferrable to an inquiry held under the Inquiries Act.
According to these ‘sources’, a non-statutory inquiry can get underway more quickly than any held under the Act. The sources also claim that an inquiry held under the Act may enable Sarah Everard’s murderer to apply to become – and be accepted as – a ‘core participant’, which would potentially give him access to certain evidence and the ability to make representations.
In our view, both these arguments are red herrings which may have been deployed in an effort to prevent proper investigation and accountability.
Whilst it is true that Wayne Couzens could, in theory, apply to become a core participant in any statutory inquiry, whether he would be granted this status depends on the inquiry’s terms of reference and would ultimately be up to the discretion of the inquiry’s Chair under the Inquiry Rules 2006, Rule 5 of which states that the chairman ‘may’ designate someone a core participant if that person consents.
So it is far from certain that Mr Couzens would succeed in becoming a core participant. Even if he did, the understandable concerns about this would not outweigh the benefits of a statutory inquiry by comparison to a non-statutory inquiry in terms of accountability, evidence gathering, and impact.
Similarly, it is not correct to say that a non-statutory inquiry would inevitably get off the ground more quickly than a statutory inquiry, since both are entirely in the gift of Ministers.
Having said this, to the extent that a non-statutory inquiry may be set up more quickly, that is a reflection of their relative lack of power, secrecy and non-participatory nature; all of which are likely in the long run to mean that non-statutory inquiries are actually slower – limited as they are in their power to compel disclosure and evidence, often beholden to the lethargy of the very individuals and institutions they are investigating.
Lessons of the Daniel Morgan inquiry
The most recently concluded non-statutory inquiry involving the Met Police was the Daniel Morgan Inquiry, which reported in June this year, almost eight years after its formation.
Not only was this inquiry very far from swift, the panel’s report (when it was eventually published, after review by the Home Office), made it clear that ‘restrictions imposed on access to certain documentation’ by the Met had delayed the panel’s work ‘very significantly’ and led to an increase in costs. This despite the Met having promised to give the Inquiry ‘exceptional and full disclosure’.
The panel said its ‘work was made more difficult by the fact that the Panel was not established under the Inquiries Act 2005 and therefore did not have the statutory powers available to such an inquiry’.
Benefits of a Statutory Inquiry
In our view it is crucial that an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Sarah Everard’s murder and any failings by the Police, is a statutory inquiry, for the following reasons.
First, this is the only way that the inquiry (and thus the public) can be satisfied that the inquiry has sufficient powers to gather evidence, compel witnesses and get to the truth. As the Daniel Morgan Inquiry makes clear, society simply cannot rely on the Met’s promises to provide full and frank disclosure.
Second, whilst not all statutory inquiries achieve the same level of transparency, they are generally more transparent (and therefore accountable) than non-statutory inquiries. A Public Inquiry, with witnesses compelled to give evidence under oath, under questioning by independent inquiry lawyers, and open to the public, will greatly increase public confidence in the inquiry and any recommendations it makes.
Third, it would improve participation. Whilst Sarah Everard’s killer may seek to become a core participant in any inquiry, so too could a host of other individuals whose participation could only enhance its investigation, not least Ms Everard’s family or organisations and individuals who can speak to the wider issues with policing in this country and cases of this kind.
Perhaps the clearest argument for a statutory public inquiry has been provided by the Government itself.
The Home Secretary’s declaration that she wants an independent inquiry held in parallel to the Met’s own ‘standards and culture’ investigation and the IOPC’s review shows that neither the Met Police, nor the IOPC, can be trusted to investigate, reach conclusions that command public confidence and learn the lessons necessary for change.
It is for the same reason that the terms of reference for any inquiry (whether statutory or non-statutory) must be sufficiently broad, and bold, to allow for a full and fearless investigation into not only what happened in this particular case, but why the Met as an institution remains unable to critically evaluate its own performance and improve, despite the Macpherson Report and Scarman Report before that.