In the cramped conference room of its Morrison Hill chambers, Mr Justice Woo Kwok-hing's Commission of Inquiry on the New Airport is still taking evidence. In their careful, deliberate and very expensive way, the lawyers pick over the details with witness after witness, adding new material every day to the 800 box-files of documents and evidence already collected. Take an example. During his preliminary examination the previous morning, an expert was asked a general question, and answered it in a general way. This morning the cross-examination homes in. The witness has suggested the fault was not with the system, but with the way it was managed, begins one of the lawyers, demanding assurances that the statement does not implicate his own client. The witness is forced to admit he cannot point to specific evidence that would implicate the lawyer's client. Another small victory in an adversarial system that demands victors and losers. Mr Justice Woo routinely reminds the lawyers that the commission was not set up to determine the conflicting claims of the parties or decide civil liability. It makes little difference to either the lawyers or their clients. The brief also says the commission is entrusted with the task of finding out what happened, why it happened and 'who should be responsible'. The outcome will affect corporate and individual reputations and will, eventually, be the basis on which claims are settled - in or out of court. With so much at stake, many of the parties feel forced to hire the most expensive lawyers and, in some cases, to keep them on stand-by for the duration of the inquiry. As one Airport Authority official put it, 'it's a form of war. And the best weapons are expensive'. So, as the inquiry drags on, and public interest in the outcome flags, the costs of the Chek Lap Kok airport fiasco continue to mount. It is no longer the expense of running a half-paralysed airport which is causing concern - although for some firms the dent in revenues from those first chaotic days may take years to repair. The worry now is the burden on time and resources of the inquiry itself. Combined with the simultaneous inquiry by the Legislative Council and the Ombudsman's investigation, establishing what went wrong is proving a drain on management and corporate budgets few would have anticipated in the heady days before the airport opened. The costs for the big players - the Government, the Airport Authority, and Hong Kong Air Cargo Terminals Ltd (HACTL) - already run into tens of millions of dollars, much of it irrecoverable. Millions more will be spent before the inquiries are over. But even groups with a relatively small part in the process, like Hongkong Telecom or Cathay Pacific, have been forced to hire solicitors and teams of barristers, with a brief to read the mountains of documents and keep tabs on the details of the inquiry. As one lawyer put it: 'Everyone had to work exceedingly hard, especially in those first six to eight weeks, before the number of documents slowed down. You didn't know what the others would say, what was in their correspondence or what their pleadings would say. Everyone needed enormous teams to marshal the documents and then people would have to read everything.' Even for the smaller participants, he said, the inquiry had taken up 'hundreds - or thousands - of hours'. Meanwhile, a knock-on effect is being felt outside the relatively small circle of firms and public bodies directly concerned in the investigation. As Chief Judge Patrick Chan Siu-oi was told during a recent application to allow in two eminent barristers from the UK, the Airport Inquiry has tied up so many top commercial barristers that there are not enough specialists left locally for other complex cases. For the bigger parties, the resources required are vast. In the Airport Authority alone, all senior staff give daily attention to the inquiry, and the legal director is said to be 'working on it full-time' as well as dealing with the normal daily workload. On average, each department has at least one managerial-level staff member attending to the commission. The Legislative Council select committee's inquiry is getting much the same material, since few of the documents need to be especially tailored to its needs. Even so the mountains of paper passing through the three inquiries add to the outlay - as well as the environmental damage. The participants are reluctant to give figures for how much this all costs, although one back-of-the-envelope calculation of the hourly rates charged by HACTL's lawyers - with a team of barristers led by John Griffiths SC and instructed by solicitors Deacons Graham & James - puts the company's costs at 'probably $70 million and still clicking'. In an official response an Airport Authority spokesman would only say 'that is a matter for the Airport Authority'. Privately, officials admit the costs are high and still mounting. 'In the end we'll have to spend a lot,' said one. 'We have no choice. We are in a legal framework. It is inconceivable we would not be properly represented.' The Government is paying its own team of lawyers, led by Ronnie Tong SC, although with the Justice Department taking the place of the instructing solicitors, its briefing-out costs may be lower than those of the other parties. The taxpayer is also funding the inquiry's independent legal team, led by Benjamin Yu SC, which was appointed directly by Mr Justice Woo. Said a spokeswoman for the inquiry: 'We are concentrating on the hearing and the priority is not the cost. We have to work quickly.' With hearings scheduled to wind up in December and a report to be presented in January, speed is considered essential. Imposing a deadline also helps set some kind of ceiling to the legal costs. Critics suggest the official post-mortem on the disastrous airport opening might have been conducted without the full panoply of judicial powers invested in a Commission of Inquiry. Some even say it might have been left to the Legislative Council to conduct the investigation - and take the steam out of demands for heads to roll - instead of duplicating the work at vast cost to the public purse. Yet with the prospect of litigation ahead - or attempts to settle out of court - the Woo inquiry's attention to detail and its role in determining responsibility may save a lot of time and legal wrangling in the long run.