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Preparing for an Inquiry (feeling like Mike Ross from Suits)

For the past two weeks I have been busy compiling information ahead of a Planning Inquiry. It is the first Inquiry I have worked on, and has been a steep learning curve with some quick deadlines involved. I am assisting one of the Partners at the firm, who is acting as the Expert Witness for heritage matters.

Planning Inquiries take place when an applicant appeals a planning decision taken by a local authority – most often, this means disputing a refusal. Inquiries are the highest level of appeal, which can also be dealt with via written representations, or smaller scale meetings called Hearings. 

At an Inquiry, a member of the Planning Inspectorate presides over the proceedings, in the role of ‘Judge’, and the main parties involved are the persons appealing the decision (the ‘appellant’), and the local planning authority (LPA). Third parties – such as local civic groups – can also contribute evidence, and are known as Rule 6 Parties.

Now, it’s obviously not really like Suits, but there is a QC (our ‘Harvey Specter’) for both sides who argues the case to the Planning Inspector. The QC is supported by a team of people known as ‘Expert Witnesses’ who have expertise relevant to the case. For example, where the impact of a scheme on a heritage asset is cited as a reason for refusal, a heritage Expert will be brought in to advise, discuss, and challenge that assertion. At the Inquiry, Expert Witnesses are questioned by the QCs who will try to bolster or undermine their evidence. From my briefing on Inquiries, I’m told these can get quite heated!

Ahead of the Inquiry, my role has been to help the Partner prepare his evidence, which is presented in a document called a Proof. This includes bringing together all the evidence and reading through a lot of supporting documents. Once complete, the Proof of each Expert Witness on both sides are shared between the main parties and the Planning Inspector, and you have a chance to interrogate the evidence put forward by the opposing side. Unlike Suits, there are no nasty surprises. 

It has been especially valuable to gain experience in this type of planning process. I have really enjoyed working with a diverse team of lawyers, planners, and the other Experts who specialise in different fields. It has also been interesting to be involved in project where planning legislation and policy are interpreted in a legal setting, where both verbal and written articulation of knowledge and argument is key. I think my own knowledge of planning has improved and will help my work as a whole.

I am excited to go to court, and see it all in action!

Helen Marrison, Planning

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