These hearings have so far largely dealt with procedural matters, such as how the hearings will be broadcast, how witnesses' identities are to be protected, who shall have Core Participant Status in relation to each specific investigation, rights of Core Participants and timescales for future hearings.
However, the hearings also provide an insight for potential participants in the Inquiry into the scope of investigations carried out within this phase of the Inquiry and the approach taken by the panel.
Counsel to the Inquiry, Ben Emmerson QC, clarified during the preliminary hearing on the investigation into the Anglican Church that 'awareness', in the context of the Inquiry, encompasses both actual and constructive knowledge. This will therefore include what the particular institution knew, and ought reasonably to have known.
Mr Emmerson went on to state that 'if the diocese, for example were to provide evidence that it was not in fact aware of any allegations of abuse in respect of a particular alleged abuser, you [the Chair] and the Panel would be justified in asking why'. This indicates the potential extent to which the panel may probe in relation alleged institutional failings.
Core participant status allows a person or organisation to be more closely involved in the Inquiry - to have the right to disclosure of documents (see below), to make representations at hearings, to ask questions of witnesses and to see a draft of the relevant report. Designation of Core Participant Status is a matter for the Chair alone to decide and is discretionary.
In considering whether to designate Core Participant Status, the Chair must consider the criteria set out in rule 5 of the Inquiry Rules 2006. Namely, whether:
The preliminary hearings provide us with a helpful insight into to the panel's application of the above criteria to applications for Core Participant Status.
Whilst there is no statutory right to disclosure, Mr Emmerson has stated in each of the preliminary hearings which have taken place so far, that 'fairness is likely to lead to a core participant being granted disclosure of relevant documentation in relation to those parts of an inquiry in which they have a clear interest'. Core Participants will also be entitled to seek leave to ask questions of a particular witness if legally represented.
The Inquiry has welcomed submissions from Core Participants at each of the preliminary hearings to date in relation to issues of anonymity and the need to balance the protection of witnesses against the public interest in publicising the Inquiry as far as possible.
Full consideration of these matters has been adjourned until the second preliminary hearings in each investigation, which are likely to take place shortly before the summer.