Fact-finding aims to answer questions like: What exactly happened? Who was affected and how? Who might be responsible? Why did the people involved do what they did? Parties to a crime or conflict typically have a pressing need for information in the aftermath of a harmful incident – especially when what took place is unclear. Fact-finding can help the parties uncover both forensic (factual) and narrative (personal) aspects of the truth, depending on the type of questions used and the context in which they are asked.
Fact-finding is fundamental when the events that led up to a crime or conflict are unclear or disputed by the parties involved. In these cases, developing a shared understanding of what happened facilitates empathetic communication and is an important prerequisite to building consensus towards an agreement.
It is also important because without the possibility of invoking an extensive fact-finding process, one party may be exposed to opportunistic behavior or manipulation on the part of the other, against which they have no recourse. In the majority of disputes, however, an understanding of what happened is shared by both parties, or is similar enough that fact-finding can be conducted through a simple (facilitated) dialogue and exchange of views.
Extensive fact-finding should only be used when necessary, as it tends to be adversarial (pitting one version of truth against the other) and carries the risk of driving the parties further apart. In cases where important technical or science-intensive issues are at stake, joint fact-finding is more effective at generating trust and mutual understanding between the parties than independent fact-finding.
This can be facilitated by a neutral third party, who helps parties with differing viewpoints and interests to jointly gather and analyse data, compare perspectives, develop common assumptions, and use the information they have collected to reach decisions together.
Extensive, independent fact-finding is most helpful as an optional form of recourse against parties who are unwilling to participate in joint fact-finding and/or might otherwise act opportunistically or manipulatively to avoid responsibility. This may be the case in legal problems involving fraud, crime, or accidents, for example.