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Lawyers back inquiry over inquest into Grenfell fire

Interests of the victims must not be sidelined, says human rights solicitor

20 June 2017

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Lawyers have welcomed a public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire adding that the interests of bereaved families and survivors will not be best served by an inquest into the tragedy.

The intervention follows criticism of Theresa May’s ordering of an independent judicial public inquiry that will run in tandem with the criminal investigation into the fire which, police state, likely claimed the lives of 79 residents.

However, more than 50,000 people have signed a petition calling for an inquest over fears an inquiry will lead to a government ‘whitewash’ of the blaze. Critics have also pointed to failures of the costly Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse which last week lost the confidence of a victims’ group.

While solicitor advocate Sophie Khan, director of Sophie Khan & Co, told BBC’s Newsnight programme that residents should demand an inquest, the charity INQUEST has welcomed the prime minister’s announcement saying a wide ranging inquiry was preferable due to the scale of the disaster.

The scope of an inquest is constrained by its statutory purpose, said the charity. By contrast, an inquiry has broader discretion, with greater powers and resources to address all relevant issues.

The setting of an inquiry’s terms of reference would be advantageous, said INQUEST, as they can be designed to identify most urgent steps needed to be taken to fire safety standards for other similar tower blocks and buildings across the UK.

Writing in The Guardian, Louise Christian, co-founder of Christian Khan, said it was ‘beyond doubt that an inquiry was the better option as long as it was completed quickly.

‘As with the rail crashes, the most urgent thing is to know what went wrong and put it right elsewhere,’ she said. ‘If that means removing all cladding on tower blocks everywhere in the UK, reviewing the building regulations, and retrofitting sprinkler systems in all old tower blocks, let’s do it within months not years.’

She added: ‘If somebody needs to be prosecuted for manslaughter that should be done. But the first priority is to make sure there is a very fast, public and transparent accounting for exactly what went wrong.’

Hodge Jones & Allen partners Jocelyn Cockburn and Susie Labinjoh have also welcomed the launch of an inquiry and called for it to begin as soon as possible.

‘Serious questions must be answered about how and why this disaster happened and who is responsible for so many deaths and injuries,’ said Cockburn. ‘The interests of the bereaved families, survivors, and the public at large are best served by a judicial public inquiry rather than an inquest.’

The firm has confirmed that it is acting for a number of the tower’s former residents. ‘Our teams are working together to provide full coordinated legal advice on housing, the inquiry, human rights, and personal injury matters,’ added Cockburn. ‘Residents have immediate needs and concerns, particularly relating to housing and financial support – which we are helping with. However, the initial days are also a vital time in deciding the important terms of reference of the public inquiry.’

The human rights lawyers explained that families and survivors, as well as other representatives from the local community, should be entitled to recognition as central participants in an inquiry.

Moreover, at an inquiry, all should have the benefit of public funding for legal representation and resources that are generally more generous than those available for families at an inquest.

Only families of the deceased may be entitled to such recognition at an inquest, and even then they are not guaranteed full legal representation or funding.

However, Labinjoh warned that the victims and their lawyers must play a major role in establishing the inquiry’s framework. ‘The interests of victims must not be sidelined in any way,’ she said.

Both INQUEST and HJA have not ruled out an inquest, however, and point to the recent success of the Hillsborough inquest if the public inquiry does not deal with all issues of relevance.

On Monday, the Grenfell Tower Recovery Taskforce, chaired by the prime minister, said that the Lord Chief Justice would pick the judge to lead the investigation into the causes of the fire.

The 24-storey tower block in West London consisted of 120 homes and around 600 residents. Hundreds have been left homeless and lawyers have warned against survivors being rehoused outside the borough. In addition, North Kensington Law Centre has called on the government to waive any fees survivors would need to pay for replacement immigration documents.

John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor of Solicitors Journal

john.vanderluit@solicitorsjournal.co.uk | @JvdLD

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