Sexual abuse inquiries overview

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (the Inquiry) focuses upon the consequences of child sexual abuse within England & Wales. Its Scottish equivalent is the Historical Child Abuse Inquiry Scotland. They follow existing national inquiries in Australia, Northern Ireland & Jersey (see summary table below for a brief overview of all five).

England & Wales

The Inquiry estimates that one child in every 20 in the UK has been sexually abused. As a consequence this is the largest public inquiry to date. It is a statutory inquiry established under the Inquiries Act 2005, it therefore has wide powers to gather evidence and to compel the production of documents and witnesses. Its terms of reference are broad and allow it to undertake an overarching review of institutions in England & Wales in the context of the sexual abuse and exploitation of children.

Hon. Lowell Goddard DNZM, who chairs the Inquiry, has said “the task ahead of us is daunting.” However she considers this is a unique opportunity to expose past failures, confront those responsible, uncover systemic failures, make recommendations for the future and provide support to victims and survivors.

The Inquiry will work subject to the three guiding principles: Comprehensive, Inclusive and Thorough

Transparency is important and there is a commitment to as much information as possible being placed in the public domain. Letters have been circulated widely advising organisations of the importance of retention of all information which may be of relevance to the Inquiry’s work.

The Inquiry has powers to consider the behaviour of all state and non-state institutions, it has no cut-off date and it is anticipated it may involve events many years and decades ago. It will consider not just state organisations but faith, charity and youth organisations and Hon. Goddard noted at the opening of the Inquiry “we may have to challenge powerful private interests such as ….insurance companies (which are accused of obstructing admissions of liability in child abuse claims and thereby defeating the right to truth for victims and survivors.”)

Whilst this is the largest and most ambitious public inquiry in England & Wales there are some limits:

  • It does not have the power to convict or punish nor to determine questions of civil liability or award compensation. It can make findings of fact and will name people accused of abuse and institutions which have failed to protect children from abuse.
  • It is limited to England & Wales. Its remit does not include overseas territories or crown dependencies, Northern Ireland, Scotland or the Channel Islands. It will however liaise with other Inquiries in those jurisdictions and it will include abuse in organisations which have operated overseas e.g. Armed Forces or where children have been taken outside of the jurisdiction.
  • The nature of the abuse is limited so it will not examine neglect or abuse other than sexual abuse and not purely familial sexual abuse where no institution has been involved. Cases of physical abuse and intimidation which are linked to sexual abuse in an institution will be considered.

Five workstreams have been established. Each is led by a member of the Inquiry Panel, with the assistance of two junior counsel, a solicitor and a team of researchers. The workstreams are:

  • Allegations of Abuse by People of Prominence in Public Life – this includes those in central government, political parties, security and intelligence services and those prominent in the media. This will be led by Hon. Goddard.
  • Education and Religion – this includes all faiths and religious traditions and all education. It will be led by Prof M Evans.
  • Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement – this includes the police, CPS, probation service, custodial settings, IPCC and will be led by Ms D Sharpling.
  • Local Authorities and Voluntary Organisations – this includes care homes, social services, voluntary and charity organisations. It is led by Prof A Jay.
  • National and Private Service Organisations – the MOD, NHS, Immigration Service, internet service providers, the insurance industry and media organisations are all part of this workstream. It is led by Mr I Evans.

The Inquiry cannot conduct a forensic investigation of every case therefore it will identify examples of wider patterns which exist and then choose a selection of case studies. It wishes to hear from anyone who wants to share their experiences and will then decide on the case studies to pursue. The Victims & Survivors Consultative panel will contribute to the decision about the case studies chosen.

There are three core projects:

The Research Project – this will consider evidence from court cases, reviews, investigations to date. It will consolidate information available and identify information gaps and will produce sector specific empirical research. An academic advisory board has been appointed.

  • The Truth Project – this will consider experiences of victims and survivors. Any person can share their experience at a private session of the Inquiry. Such session will be as informal as possible. It will only be attended by a member of the Inquiry team, the victim and anyone they have brought with them. There will be no direct legal consequences and no individual findings of fact from these meetings but information will be recorded and anonymised and fed in to the research and analytical work.
  • The Public Hearings Project – this encompasses the case studies. A number of cases will be selected to be representative of patterns of failings. They may relate to one or a group of institutions. Once chosen they will involve investigation and evidence gathering. It is anticipated there will be five case studies for each workstream. Institutions concerned will be required to provide all relevant documents, to answer questions and nominate individuals to give evidence. If necessary the Inquiry will compel the production of documents and witnesses. Victims and survivors can testify or provide written evidence, all of which can be given anonymously. The statutory power to order attendance will not be used to compel victims and survivors to give evidence but may be used for representatives of organisations. Hearings will generally be open to the public and transcribed with transcriptions available on the website. Modular hearings are expected to last four to six weeks each. At the conclusion core participants will be given the opportunity to make closing statements and submissions. Reports will be published at the end of each module


The Scottish Inquiry although announced in December 2014 has not yet progressed to the same extent as the other Inquiries. It has not yet provided many details of how it will operate but it has noted its contact with all the other inquiries mentioned here so it may well follow a similar format once it has established its panel and operating procedure.


The format of the Inquiry in England & Wales appears to be following very closely that of the Royal Commission in Australia which has already heard evidence from many organisations and published a number of reports in to individual case studies. They have called a variety of organisations to produce documents and for senior individuals to give evidence. It has also held a consultation and published recommendations around the introduction of a redress scheme and changes to civil litigation.

Northern Ireland

The Historical Abuse Inquiry started to hear evidence in January 2014 and is due to report in Jan 2017. Evidence heard to date has identified much about historic abuse cases and the changes in societal norms and what was then but is no longer acceptable in treatment and attitude towards children, education, care and concerns.table

These and many internal inquiries are of relevance to many organisations and cannot be ignored. Any organisation which has itself or via a customer had any contact and responsibilities for children should be looking at how it acted in the past and how it now behaves. The central core of all of these inquiries is to protect children but in doing that close scrutiny will be made of what has happened in the past.




Written by Paula Jefferson, partner

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