ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - The Newfoundland and Labrador government is questioning whether a public inquiry into botched breast-cancer tests has the right to cross-examine witnesses.

Jackie Brazil, a lawyer representing the provincial government, appeared before the inquiry unexpectedly Monday to seek clarification on whether the inquiry's counsel has the right to cross-examine all witnesses.

But before Brazil could proceed with her application, Justice Margaret Cameron told her to file a written application by Tuesday.

"I would like to apologize for the short notice," Brazil said.

"Well, the short notice may determine how we deal with this," Cameron replied.

She said the most efficient and fair way to handle the government's application would be to file it in writing.

Opposition parties have accused Premier Danny Williams of interfering with the inquiry after he criticized it last week for being too inquisitive, describing it as a "prosecution."

Williams has defended his remarks, saying that some witnesses have testified for an "excessive" period of time.

Williams has been summoned to testify at a later date.

The government has not responded to Cameron's request for an extension to the time allotted for the inquiry, which is supposed to deliver a final report with recommendations by July 30.

"I therefore must proceed on the basis that I will not have an extension," Cameron said.

"That means that we cannot waste a moment in terms of the time that the witnesses are on the stand."

The inquiry is looking into how nearly 400 patients received inaccurate results on their breast-cancer tests, and whether the responsible authorities responded appropriately.

The inquiry is focusing on hormone-receptor tests, which are used by doctors to determine the course of treatment for breast-cancer patients.

If patients are found to be estrogen-and/or progesterone-positive, they may respond to hormone therapy such as Tamoxifen. If not, they may be given a range of other treatments, or no treatment at all, depending on the characteristics of the patient's cancer.

In the spring of 2005, doctors began questioning the hormone-receptor test results of a patient with invasive lobular carcinoma, a form of breast cancer.

After retesting, it was discovered that the initial test result was wrong, as were those for a small sample of other patients.

Eastern Health subsequently halted testing in its lab and transferred its hormone-receptor tests to Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.

The health board then started a review of all hormone-receptor tests from 1997 to 2005.