Statement by the Urology Services Inquiry Chair, Christine Smith QC, providing update on Inquiry’s work

As it is now three months since the Urology Services Inquiry commenced its work, I wish to update those affected by our work as to what we have achieved since September.

Due to unforeseen delays beyond the control of the Inquiry we have been unable to move into our office premises at 1 Bradford Court, Belfast, but I am hopeful that we will do so shortly. We have nonetheless been able to commence our investigations and, in due course, we will hold our public hearings at Bradford Court.

Our website is in operation and we have used this facility to post key documents that set out how the Inquiry will operate. We will continue to update the website when we are in a position to share information about our work.

One of my first tasks as Chair of the Inquiry was to decide who the Inquiry must hear from. Most of our work relates to issues about governance, but I have been acutely aware that at the heart of the matters we need to examine, are those patients and families who have been affected by what occurred in the urology department of the Southern Health and Social Care Trust. Accordingly, once we obtained the details of those families whose cases resulted in the setting up of this Inquiry, I wrote to each personally to explain how we were going about our work and inviting them to engage with the Inquiry. I later placed a version of this letter on the website together with a questionnaire which can be used by any patient or family member affected, or indeed by anyone who has information to share with the Inquiry. I would encourage anyone who considers that they have been affected to read my letter, complete the questionnaire or to contact the Inquiry. Details of how to do this are on the website. Anyone who does engage with us will be treated sensitively by the entire Inquiry team.

As I made clear in my letter to patients, I do not consider that the patients or families require to be legally represented before the Inquiry. I am willing, however, to consider any application for legal assistance by patients and families for help in filling in the questionnaire, or making a statement to the Inquiry. The costs protocol sets out how lawyers can apply to the Inquiry for an award. I will consider each application received, mindful of my duty to be fair and to have regard to the cost to the public purse.

I have determined that there are to be three core participants before the Inquiry. I decided that each could assist the Inquiry in fulfilling its terms of reference most effectively by being actively involved in the Inquiry proceedings. Further, each could potentially be subject to explicit or significant criticism at the conclusion of our work. The three core participants are: The Department of Health, the Southern Health and Social Care Trust and Mr Aidan O’Brien. Each has consented to this designation and has appointed legal teams to engage with the Inquiry.

At this point I do not envisage that I will designate any other individual or body as a core participant or as an enhanced participatory witness, but I remain open to making such designations if I consider it would be fair and proportionate to do so.

Each core participant has received detailed notices requiring them to supply information to the Inquiry. We have already received a substantial quantity of material which requires examination and full consideration by the Inquiry team. This is likely to take some time, and indeed is likely to continue for the duration of our work. For that reason I cannot say exactly when the Inquiry will start to hear from witnesses. It is my intention to hear from the patients and families first and I hope that that will happen in spring next year. Ideally we would like to hear from those we ask to speak to us in person, but the constraints of the current pandemic mean that we may have to make other arrangements.

As our work progresses I will provide updates on the website and on occasion through the media.