New legal team: ‘First, we listen’

Written by Aaron Dennis, March 15, 2019

Peter Jones, who will be leading the Haemophilia Society’s legal team at the Infected Blood Inquiry, has been a partner in Eversheds Sutherland for more than 30 years. He set up the firm’s Inquiries and Investigations Team and has been involved in many of the UK’s most high profile public inquiries. Here Peter tells us more about his role.

Your team has huge experience in dealing with public inquiries in the UK. How will that help The Haemophilia Society and those of its members who choose to be represented by Eversheds Sutherland?

What we bring to The Society is an experience of knowing what the Inquiry will expect of it and an understanding that an inquiry will be best served by an approach of openness, accountability and assistance. I hope we will enable The Society to engage meaningfully with the Inquiry in a way that recognises the history of what it has done and advised in the past. It is history, it can’t be undone, but lessons can be learnt.

For the members, we will be an empathetic ear, and we will assist them to give the best evidence that they can give to the Inquiry. Their evidence will help the Inquiry to understand what has happened to members, how it happened and, equally importantly, their view on how things could have been done differently and could be done differently in the future. We know that people infected and affected by this Inquiry have waited many decades for their voices to be heard. We will do everything we can to ensure that the truth about the contaminated blood scandal is exposed through this Inquiry.

Many people who want to give evidence to the Inquiry feel daunted by the emotions that reliving their experiences may release. What is your experience of this?

Any witness who is being asked to give evidence about something that has happened to them or their loved ones that was traumatic and took place some time ago is going to find it difficult. It’s not so much that it can provoke feelings; it almost certainly will.

The skill in my team helping survivors, victims and witnesses is to understand that this is an exercise in listening. It is important not to assume that the witnesses can only give limited evidence on certain topics, because often witnesses will surprise themselves and surprise the Inquiry with the breadth of the knowledge and insight they can give. Although giving evidence may seem like a traumatic experience, witnesses invariably feel the better for it because in many cases they have been bottling all this up inside for years, if not decades. So long as they are sensitively managed by both their own representatives and the Inquiry, they will feel that they have been listened to, and their evidence will have an impact on making recommendations for improvement in the future.

How did your work with public inquiries in the UK begin?

I established Eversheds Sutherland’s Inquiries and Investigations Team in 1998 when we were appointed by the largest public inquiry there had ever been at that stage – the Bloody Sunday Inquiry in Northern Ireland – which was revisiting historic events that dated back as far as 1972. The chairman of the inquiry, Lord Saville of Newdigate, felt that a team of lawyers appointed by the Inquiry was needed out there to find out what happened, to interview those with evidence to give who had never given it, and to actually engender confidence in the community in the fact that this inquiry was independent and was determined to get to the truth. A team of 100 people worked on that inquiry on and off for seven years.

It was as a result of that engagement that our Inquiries and Investigations Team then became dedicated in doing public inquiry work. We were asked to investigate for the Shipman Inquiry. Dame Janet Smith, the Inquiry chair, wanted a team locally to go out and investigate what had happened in the area of Dr Shipman’s practice so that she could identify factual trends that would assist her in working out how many people he had actually murdered. At that stage the criminal inquiry had suspected that he was guilty of 15 murders, but as a result of the work we did and the evidence that we collated, Dame Janet was able to draw conclusions that he had probably murdered more than 200 people.

Ever since then the team has been involved either in doing similar work for other public inquiries or acting for people who have an interest in public inquiries.

From your experience of previous inquiries, can the Infected Blood Inquiry hope to achieve its terms of reference when it is investigating events which happened almost 50 years ago?

Inquiries rarely follow quickly after the event. They are often brought about as a result of a campaign on behalf of the victims or people who have suffered who have been petitioning the political classes for an inquiry. That is often a very slow process. It is often the case that when an inquiry is established by Government, it is looking at matters that will have taken place a long while ago and therefore it is not unusual for witnesses to be asked to give evidence about matters which they might well have thought was consigned to history.

There may well be issues that the Inquiry will find that documentation has been lost or destroyed. That then puts a greater onus on the witnesses to try that much harder to help the inquiry deal with these short comings. There are techniques that witnesses and those representing them can adopt which can help with recall; memories become much more important when documentation isn’t available. It does put a strain on victims and survivors who are then going to have to dig deep into their memories, and it is challenging for the inquiry to complete its terms of reference, but it can be done.

Will you be prepared to challenge the Inquiry if you feel important issues are being overlooked?

Anybody participating in an inquiry is there to help it, and challenging an inquiry to do better is part of the role of helping an inquiry. The members of The Society and The Society itself, will know what happened, and they will know what they’ve been through. If they don’t feel the Inquiry is fully understanding of something, or is not pressing the right buttons, or is not exploring the right avenues, it is of help to the Inquiry to be told that by people who know. It is not a question of challenging in a confrontational manner; it is about challenging in a constructive way and suggesting lines of inquiry and questioning of witnesses that would assist its work. This is part and parcel of helping the Inquiry. We consider that part of our role.

What happens now?

My team goes into this public inquiry with an understanding of the process that’s going to unravel the facts of the contaminated blood scandal and, we hope, provide those infected and affected with the answers for which they have waited so long. But we start by listening. We weren’t there, we need to be told. When we have been told that evidence, and we can marshal it, we can then make sure the Inquiry is fully informed and help it do its job.