Environment in Crisis

Environmental Impact Assessment

What is an EIA?
Public Inquiries


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Public Inquiries


Public inquiries are held to enable a range of expert and community views to be independently assessed. Inquiries in NSW are conducted by the Commissioners of Inquiry. There are four full-time Commissioners appointed by the Governor of NSW. Under the legislation they are free from direction by anyone in government.

The legislation covering Commissions of Inquiry is the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act. Inquiries are held prior to the Minister making a decision and attempts are made to ensure that all interested parties have the opportunity to express their views before a decision is made. Inquiries are held in public by one or two commissioners who report their findings and recommendations to the relevant Minister. The findings and recommendations are made public and the Minister may accept, reject or modify them.

The Commissioners may seek further information from parties to the inquiry and from other sources. Unlike the Land and Environment Court, which determines issues of law, the Commissioners of Inquiry consider all the merits of a case. Those people giving their views do not need to be represented by lawyers or barristers although they may be. The Commissioners are supposed to treat everyone who appears before them equally, whether or not they are legally represented.

If someone wants to take part in an inquiry they generally first lodge a submission in response to a public notice of the inquiry which appears in the newspaper. They are usually held in council chambers in the area of the proposed project or in the Office of the Commissioners of Inquiry for a project like the Tunnel. They are conducted during the daytime between 9 am and 4 pm.

Proceedings are informal and evidence is not taken under oath. The Commissioners generally require all information and views to be put in writing so that proceedings do not have to be recorded or transcribed. Copies of all these written submissions are available for public inspection.

Prior to the hearing, everybody taking part lodges a handwritten or typed submission and written copies of any questions that they wish to ask other people taking part in the inquiry. At the beginning of the inquiry the Commissioners sort out when each person will make their submission. In the first part of the hearing people either talk from or read their submissions. They may either sit or stand whilst doing this. No one is supposed to interrupt a person presenting their submission. Generally the proponent of the proposal goes first. Everyone is supposed to present all their information in their first submission.

After everyone has had a chance to make their primary submissions and have answered questions from the Commissioners and others in writing then they may lodge a second submission which is called the submission in reply. This enables people to respond to what other people have said and to new information that has become known during the hearing. The applicant makes the final submission in reply.

Submissions to an inquiry may be for or against a proposal or seek changes to the proposal. They may address all issues relevant to the proposal or confine themselves just to one or two issues. People can ask that their submission remain confidential but the Commissioners will need good reasons for allowing this.

Between the submissions and the submission in reply people may ask questions of others in writing and these questions and their answers (also in writing) are circulated.

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Additional Material

Commissions of Inquiry for Environment and Planning: How They Work, Office of the Commissioners of Inquiry for Environment and Planning, 1988.


© 2003 Sharon Beder