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Tips for surviving a public inquiry

|Written By Chris S. Schafer
Tips for surviving a public inquiry

Public inquiries are back en vogue. From the Gomery inquiry, to the Cornwall inquiry, to the Arar commission, and the Iacobucci inquiry into the cases of three Arab-Canadians who were imprisoned in Syria, and of course the one into the use of Taser stun guns by the RCMP that resulted in the death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski, public inquiries have popped up all over the place.

If given the opportunity, jump on board. Being able to make a significant contribution to important public policy issues makes public inquiries an immensely rewarding experience, not to mention the practical litigation training they provide.

I took part in the Commission of Inquiry into the Investigation of the Bombing of Air India Flight 182. Along with two co-lead counsel, Jacques Shore and Norman Boxall, I served as counsel to the largest party before the inquiry, the Air India Victims Families Association.

From September 2006, when the first witnesses testified until February 2008, the Air India inquiry was a whirlwind of motions, will-says, document review, cross-examinations of witnesses, oral and written submissions, and meetings.

Having had the privilege of being involved in this important public inquiry, I share my top five tips for surviving a public inquiry.

1.    Expect the unexpected

Television makes public inquiries appear seamless and perfectly organized. Like the old adage goes, ducks may appear calm and unruffled on the surface of a lake, but they are paddling like the devil underneath. The same goes for lawyers working on a public inquiry. As much as you may try to remain on top of things, be prepared for a deluge of last minute will-says, documents, surprise witnesses, and on-the-fly cross-examinations.

2.    Be prepared for double duty

Like a trial, public inquiries can become all consuming. Getting involved on an inquiry means you have to be prepared to do double duty and not neglect your other files. Although public inquiries provide lots of billable hours, they often mean that private-sector lawyers must work at public-sector billing rates. This means squeezing in time to work on your other files.

3.    Get to know inquiry staff

The same principle that applies at your law firm applies at the offices of a public inquiry. Like your administrative assistants, law librarians, and law clerks, inquiry staff are invaluable. Befriend them as soon as possible and keep their contact information close at hand. Many a time, I found myself spinning my wheels in a desperate search for a particular document or piece of information. A quick phone call or e-mail to the right staff at the inquiry always located what I was looking for in a more timely fashion.

4.    Keep your client happy

Between preparing for cross examinations and attending hearings, not much time is left for direct client contact. Given that an informed client is often a happy client, practical and easy strategies must be used to maintain good client relationships.

For example, during the Air India inquiry, the Air India Victims Families Association was kept up to date on the proceedings by way of a weekly summary of witness testimony. Google’s news aggregator, Google Alerts was used to troll the Internet for news stories on the proceedings of the inquiry, effectively reducing the time and effort needed to regularly check web sites for updates and articles. The news stories that Google Alerts retrieved and delivered daily to my e-mail inbox, were then efficiently turned into summaries of the week’s proceedings.

5.    Transcripts are your best friend

An invaluable skill to practise at the outset of a public inquiry is to work efficiently. Failing to grasp the importance of this will surely mean that your colleagues will find you late at night, in your office, buried under a mountain of will-says and documents. To avoid this fate, do not neglect evidentiary transcripts. Although the Air India inquiry produced thousands upon thousands of pages of documents, evidentiary transcripts proved invaluable as a short-cut summary of the most important evidence introduced at the inquiry.

Alas, while public inquiries are immensely enriching and rewarding experiences, with an opportunity to better the lives of Canadians and make a mark on Canadian public policy and political life, they involve long hours and dedication, placing pressure on maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Keeping the above tips in mind helped me survive my first public inquiry.

Chris S. Schafer was counsel to the Air India Victims Families Association before the Air India inquiry and is an associate in the government relations practice group at the Ottawa office of Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP. Chris can be reached at