The law relating to inquiries was reformed and modernised by the Inquiries
Act 2013 (Act). The Act largely supersedes the Commissions of
Inquiry Act 1908. This note explains the key features of inquiries which proceed
under the new Act.
Types of inquiry
The Act makes provision for three types of inquiry:
Royal Commissions of Inquiry (such as the Royal Commission on the Pike River
Coal Mine Tragedy). They are established by the Governor-General, have greater
status, and tend to deal with matters of great national importance.
Other public inquiries (such as the 2007 Commission of Inquiry into Police
Conduct). They are established by the Governor-General, and can deal with any
matter of public importance.
Government inquiries (such as the on-going Government Inquiry into the Whey
Protein Concentrate Contamination Incident). They are established by Ministers,
and tend to deal with more immediate matters.
Powers of an inquiry
All inquiries have the same statutory powers. In particular, an inquiry
regulate its own procedure, subject to the Act and its terms of
designate any person to be a “core participant” in the inquiry;
obtain information from any person, e.g. by requiring him or her to produce
any documents or things or provide information;
order any person to disclose to another person any specified document, thing
summon any person to attend and give evidence before the inquiry;
receive any evidence whether or not it would be admissible in court
proceedings, take evidence on oath or affirmation, and permit a witness to give
evidence by any means;
forbid publication of any evidence or submissions, restrict public access, or
hold any part of the inquiry in private (subject to some limitations);
make findings of fault or recommend that further steps be taken to determine
liability (but not in fact determine the civil, criminal or disciplinary
liability of any person); and
make an award of costs against any person.
Duties of an inquiry
All inquiries have the same statutory duties (which may be supplemented by
common law duties). In particular, an inquiry must:
comply with its “establishment instrument” or terms of reference;
act independently, impartially, and fairly;
comply with the principles of natural justice;
have regard to the need to avoid unnecessary delay or cost in relation to
public funds, witnesses and other persons participating in the inquiry;
allow all “core participants” to give evidence and make submissions; and
submit a final report to the Governor-General or Minister, which must then be
presented to Parliament.
The following points are also worth noting:
Inquiries often proceed in parallel with other investigations (e.g. by the
Police, the Serious Fraud Office, WorkSafe New Zealand, or professional bodies).
This can lead to complexity. However, there is scope for the inquiry to be
postponed if continuing it would be likely to prejudice such an investigation,
or a person interested in that investigation.
Witnesses and other persons participating in an inquiry have the same
immunities and privileges as if they were appearing in civil proceedings in
Intentionally obstructing an inquiry is an offence, punishable by a fine not
exceeding $10,000. The Solicitor-General may also initiate proceedings for
contempt of an inquiry.
Once an inquiry has reported back, documents created by and received in the
course of the inquiry may be susceptible to requests under the Official
Information Act 1982.
This publication is necessarily brief and general in nature. You should seek professional advice before taking any action in relation to the matters dealt with in this publication.