Why Gren­fell ten­ants need to be heard Louise Chris­tian

The Guardian - - JOURNAL OPINION -

Vic­tims of the Gren­fell Tower fire are ab­so­lutely right to de­mand a much bet­ter re­sponse to the dis­as­ter than has been seen so far. Crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tions can take years and cause long de­lays to un­cov­er­ing the truth. I acted for the clos­est fam­ily mem­bers of all those who died in the July 2009 Lakanal House fire in Cam­ber­well, Lon­don, in which six peo­ple died. Be­cause of the crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion there was no in­quiry un­til four and a half years later, and by that time the promised pub­lic in­quiry had been down­graded to an in­quest. The de­lay hugely pro­longed the suf­fer­ing of the fam­i­lies of those who lost their lives.

This must not hap­pen af­ter Gren­fell and there is a prece­dent for over­com­ing de­lays. The Lad­broke Grove train crash on 5 Oc­to­ber 1999, which killed 31 peo­ple, was par­tic­u­larly shock­ing be­cause a pub­lic in­quiry had just opened into the Septem­ber 1997 Southall train crash. I was the lead solic­i­tor act­ing for the be­reaved and in­jured in both crashes. In­flu­enced by the shock of Lad­broke Grove, the gov­ern­ment of the day acted and a fresh pub­lic in­quiry opened two months later. A ma­jor part of the in­quiry was com­pleted by the end of 2000. A po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion only took place once the facts had been es­tab­lished by the in­quiry.

And this is where it is im­por­tant to grasp the cru­cial dis­tinc­tion be­tween a pub­lic in­quiry and an in­quest. By law a coroner can­not pro­ceed with the sub­stan­tive part of an in­quest un­til any crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion has con­cluded. But a pub­lic in­quiry is not ham­pered in the same way. The scope of a pub­lic in­quiry is also wider. Be­yond doubt, a pub­lic in­quiry is a bet­ter op­tion than an in­quest. As with the rail crashes, the most ur­gent thing is to know what went wrong and put it right else­where. Of course in the long run 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.

Sadly nei­ther an in­quest nor a pub­lic in­quiry has the power to make rec­om­men­da­tions for bind­ing changes, but a rapid pub­lic in­quiry would put the gov­ern­ment un­der more pres­sure to im­ple­ment its find­ings im­me­di­ately.

It is true that pub­lic in­quiries have earned a poor rep­u­ta­tion; too of­ten al­lowed to drag on for years, cost­ing huge sums while achiev­ing lit­tle. (Just look at the prob­lems with the child abuse in­quiry.) So a se­nior judge, coun­sel and so­lic­i­tors who have real de­ter­mi­na­tion, en­ergy and clout equal to the chal­lenge of or­gan­is­ing de­tailed tes­ti­mony from wit­nesses and ex­perts are needed.

The in­ter­ests of the vic­tims are all too of­ten side­lined and not made cen­tre stage. The In­quiries Act 2005 weak­ened the in­de­pen­dence of such in­quiries and in­creased the power of the gov­ern­ment. Peo­ple in the Gren­fell com­mu­nity are wor­ried by the de­ci­sion that the pro­posed in­quiry will re­port to the prime min­is­ter. Vic­tims’ and ten­ants’ groups must be given pub­lic fund­ing for in­de­pen­dent and sep­a­rate le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tion suf­fi­cient to en­able them to have a voice equal to that of na­tional and lo­cal gov­ern­ment and the pri­vate man­age­ment com­pany. Le­gal aid cuts mean that the ex­ist­ing pro­vi­sion for le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tion in in­quests will not achieve this. (The ten­ants’ as­so­ci­a­tion was dis­grace­fully not al­lowed rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the Lakanal House fire in­quest.) But in a pub­lic in­quiry the gov­ern­ment can and should make such funds avail­able.

Af­ter this ap­palling dis­as­ter, the pub­lic in­quiry must start soon, re­port rapidly and al­low vic­tims and the com­mu­nity the fund­ing to en­able them to play a ma­jor role. It is not clear if this gov­ern­ment and this prime min­is­ter – who has al­ready ad­mit­ted that the re­sponse so far has been de­fi­cient – are able to achieve this. All po­lit­i­cal par­ties should be de­mand­ing they do.

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