Last month the Prime Minister appointed my former judicial colleague Sir Martin Moore-Bick to chair the inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire. The terms of reference of the inquiry have yet to be settled, but its official website states that “The purpose of the inquiry is to discover what happened at Grenfell Tower and to make recommendations to prevent a similar tragedy happening again.” It is not yet clear how much is included in “what happened”.

Within days residents and others were complaining that Sir Martin was not the right person for the job, even heckling him at a meeting arranged for him to learn their views. As a judge nominated to try cases in court, he will never have faced such a response from litigants.

But he may well have expected this response to his appointment to this inquiry. Why the difference?

Inquiries may be conducted by retired civil servants, distinguished legal practitioners and academics, as well as by judges (who may be either still serving or retired). In recent years there has been discussion in Parliament, and among judges and academics, as to what sort of person should be appointed to chair an inquiry, and whether they should sit alone or with a panel of experts. The reason commonly advanced for appointing judges is that they have particular professional attributes and skills: impartiality, independence, knowing what to do to ensure fairness, and experience in sifting complicated evidence to establish the cause of a major fatal event.

But there are skills which a judicial career does not require. Judges do not manage any large organisation or large budgets with competing priorities. They do not deal with political parties, whether locally or nationally. If an inquiry involves issues of social or economic policy with political implications, then judicial experience is less of a help. It may be a danger to both the judge and the inquiry. The judge’s undoubted impartiality and independence extends to the exercise of judicial skills. It cannot extend to social and economic issues, upon which no one is required to be impartial.

Sir Martin cannot be blamed for accepting the appointment. Since he is retired, he was under no formal obligation to accept it. But judges commonly have a strong sense of public duty. They will rarely decline a request for them to perform a public duty, unless they are personally disqualified from doing it, for example by some interest in the outcome.

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