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How is the dissemination of aviation accident investigation reports regulated? Are the reports public by default, or can they be kept secret? Are there any known rules on this?

If the reports are not public, do the people involved in the accident have a right to access the evidence and/or the reports? Can they find out what the verdict (if there is one) was?

This surely depends very much on the country. Please indicate the regional scope of your answers. (My interest is specific but not limited to France.)

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Unless there is some risk of national security to releasing a public report of the accident, the reports are released. You can search the public ones (almost all are public) at the BEA website. The same applies for the other aviation accident and incident reports and you can find the available reports on the websites of the group that has jurisdiction over the accident/incident; NTSB for the US, AAIB for the UK, and many other ones.

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This is a complicated answer, and yes, it is very dependent on country and even the type of accident.

First, be aware that there can also be a big difference in "incident" vs "accident", and they may be reported differently.

Next, each country has its own laws and regulations about the dissemination of materials generated by government entities. I don't know French law or it's rules for releasing records, so I would have to defer to somebody familiar with it. In the United States we have the Freedom of Information Act which regulates how documents are released, exemptions from release, and a request process.

Again, I'm not sure about the French, but in the U.S. we have something called Procedural Due Process which allows both sides of the proceedings equal access to evidence. This comes from Due Process and by extension, the Magna Carta. Really now we are getting into the rights and obligations under law and is a bit outside the scope of this site. Point is, at least in the U.S. a person in a civil or criminal lawsuit has the right to examine the evidence as equally as the prosecuting party.

Now, as far as current access to records... This is a digital age, everything is done on computers, fed to servers, and can easily be made available to the general public, usually if it is in the public interest. 1989 was a different story. The first "laptop's" weren't introduced until the 80's and ones that would run word processing software weren't readily available (or very affordable). Most investigators at that time would take notes on paper then go back to an office and type them up (on a typewriter mind you). These reports would then be given to others in the organization and filed.

The U.S. has done a pretty damn good job of digitizing old reports and it may be that the French have not have bothered to put the resources into digitizing these reports. If your search for information is purely "on the web", you may need to actually visit a library (national) or make a request to the investigating agency.

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  • $\begingroup$ and even if the report itself is released, portions of it may be withheld from the public for various reasons, from national security to privacy concerns and fears that people might go vigilante and try to kill named persons. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Oct 28 '16 at 15:59
  • $\begingroup$ Is procedural due process actually relevant? An NTSB investigation is not a criminal investigation and its findings cannot be used in a court of law. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Oct 29 '16 at 7:24
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidRicherby -- the conclusions cannot be, but AFAIU (IANAL tho, may have to bring this up with the legal eagles @ work) the factual findings of an NTSB investigation are admissible in court -- if they weren't, it'd make life really screwy for the DOJ if they had to prosecute someone for say intentionally sabotaging an aircraft. $\endgroup$ – UnrecognizedFallingObject Oct 30 '16 at 5:58
  • $\begingroup$ BTW: while the NTSB has done a fairly good job digitizing old reports, there are still quite a few that aren't available on their website. ERAU's library has gone through and digitized all the old NTSB aviation accident reports, though. (Now, if only someone'd do that for the other modes!) $\endgroup$ – UnrecognizedFallingObject Oct 30 '16 at 6:00
  • $\begingroup$ @UnrecognizedFallingObject It appears that you're right that findings of fact can be used in a criminal trial. It turns out that even they can't be used in a civil trial, though: the reports themselves say, "The Independent Safety Board Act, as codified at 49 U.S.C. Section 1154(b), precludes the admission into evidence or use of Board reports related to an incident or accident in a civil action for damages resulting from a matter mentioned in the report." $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Oct 30 '16 at 11:13
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USA

The public availability of information is regulated in 49 CFR Part 801:

[TBD: insert here a summary of relevant parts of this regulation ]

European Union

Dissemination of investigation reports is regulated through Regulation (EU) No 996/2010.

According to this document,

  • the investigation reports are to be made public ("in shortest possible time and if possible within 12 months")
  • the following information shall not be made available (shortened - see Reg. 996/2010 Art 14 for complete text):

    • statements taken from persons
    • records revealing the identity of persons
    • information of particularly sensitive and personal nature
    • material subsequently produced during the course of the investigation
    • information and evidence provided by other countries
    • draft, preliminary, or interim reports or statements
    • cockpit voice and image recordings
    • communications between persons involved in the operation of the aircraft
    • recordings and transcripts from air traffic control
    • covering letters and occurrence reports
  • the regulation shall not apply for accidents and incidents which involve aircraft engaged in military, customs, police or similar services, except when the Member State concerned so determines. (Art. 3.3)
  • the question of guilt is not in the scope of the accident report. Therefore the dissemination of a verdict is not covered by this regulation.

France

BEA states on its website:

"European Regulation European regulation n°996/2010 specifies that the BEA makes public information on the progress of its investigations and that it informs in advance the members of the families of victims.

In the context of an investigation that it conducts after an aviation disaster, the BEA:

  • Communicates through various means (internet site, press releases, and press conferences) at each major stage of its investigations (initiation of the investigation, information, interim report, and final report) to the media and the public.

  • Regularly sends mail to the families of victims providing updates on the progress of the investigation and gives them first access to reports to be published. "

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