GRENFELL – ‘Change the law so that those who are considered criminally culpable are prosecuted and punished!’ – demands Imran Khan KC

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Young survivors and local residents of north Kensington with their banner on the first anniversary of the fire

As the phase 2 of the public inquiry in the Grenfell Tower fire that claimed the life of 72 residents draws to a close this week, lawyers for the bereaved have accused a ‘rogues gallery’ of firms of responsibility.

After more than 300 days of evidence, final addresses were made to the public inquiry on Monday. The bereaved families’ lawyers described the 14 June 2017 disaster as one of the greatest failings of the politics of the ‘rolled-back state’.

The inquiry was ordered by Prime Minister Theresa May on the day following the fire and is being chaired by retired judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick.

The immediate priority laid out was ‘to establish the facts of what happened at Grenfell Tower in order to take the necessary action to prevent a similar tragedy from happening again’.

The Inquiry was divided into two phases: Phase 1 which addressed the events on the night of the fire, and the ongoing Phase 2 which is investigating the wider situation. Hearings for Phase 1 were held in June–December 2018 in Holborn, Central London and the findings of Phase 1 were published on 30 October 2019.

The lawyers have demanded that the public inquiry should lead to criminal prosecutions of all organisations involved in the disaster. They said key players were ‘fraudulent’, ‘reckless’ and ‘grossly negligent’ and urged the inquiry panel chair, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, to deliver unstinting criticism of governmental bodies overseeing building safety.

It was emphasised that a failure to issue an unambiguous apology from the side of the corporations involved would lead to ‘injustice heaped upon injustice’.

They said: ‘The leitmotif of Grenfell is the failure of anyone to take responsibility either then or now.’

Representing dozens of families, Danny Friedman KC reminded Moore-Bick of the community’s demand for justice and said that while the inquiry ‘cannot make determinations of civil or criminal liability, it can pave the way for both’.

Many survivors have expressed their frustration about the delay in attaining justice, as the Metropolitan Police have said criminal charges can only be considered after the inquiry report is published which is expected later in 2023.

The companies are scheduled to give closing statements later this week, but they have previously denied serious wrongdoing and argued their actions were in line with regulations at the time, with blame being passed on from one company to others and the regulator.

The lawyers reminded Moore-Bick that his recommendations must be implemented, especially after the government rejected a key demand from the first phase of the inquiry for disabled people living in high-rises to be provided personal evacuation plans.

The issue of institutional racism was brought up as an essential feature of the missteps that led to the disaster. 85% of the people who died in the fire were from ethnic minorities.

The lawyers argues that Grenfell was ‘a human rights disaster, a systematic failure of state and private actors to protect the life, security and dignity of people’ and that institutional racism ‘infected every aspect of the disaster’.

Imran Khan KC said, ‘greed was a key motivator and private sector organisations involved in the refurbishment had shown ‘a callous indifference to anything – morality, honesty, life safety – that was not related to the bottom line of the business.’

Khan warned that some of his clients feared that offering closing statements to the inquiry was ‘a waste of time’.

‘The fact is that immediately after the fire our clients and all those that were in Grenfell knew what had happened and who was at fault.

‘In fact, the world knew what happened and who was at fault. What they wanted, first and foremost, what they expected immediately after the fire, was arrests, prosecutions and imprisonment of those that were culpable.’

He warned that public inquiries can ‘give the appearance of change without any change’.

He called for the establishment of a national monitoring system to ensure the implementation of inquiry recommendations and for 14 June (the anniversary of the fire) to be made a National Day of Remembrance.

‘Our clients are clear,’ he said. ‘If nothing changes, their loved ones would have died in vain, and they’re not prepared to accept that.

‘They want wholesale change to the housing sector in this country so that there is safe and suitable housing for all. Not just the white, able-bodied and wealthy.

‘They want meaningful recommendations to come from this inquiry and they want those recommendations implemented in full and in a timely manner.

‘They want the law to change that those who are considered criminally culpable, are swiftly prosecuted, and properly punished.

‘They want those who are responsible for failures to be forced to accept responsibility at the outset rather than playing the blame game, as almost every party has done during the inquiry.

‘And when tragedies such as this occur, and they will, when everyone knows what happened and why it happened and who’s at fault, they don’t want the victims have to wait for half a decade as they’ve had to do here.’

Stephanie Barwise KC, representing one of three community groups, named Arconic, which made the dangerous cladding, alongside the architects, contractors and fire engineers who worked on the refurbishment and the council and management body which owned and maintained the tower in the list.

She also criticised the various parties involved in the inquiry for failing to accept responsibility saying ‘little has changed’ in that regard since the start of the process more than four years ago.

‘Self-interest is unhumbled by the disaster, or indeed by this inquiry,’ she said. ‘Each core participant continues to blame others, and predictably, now blames the regulatory regime for its permissiveness and propensity to be abused.’

Danny Friedman KC, representing the same group of survivors as Barwise, added: ‘Legal innovations are doomed to fail absent wider societal transformation of existing ways of doing things. Grenfell was a human rights disaster, a systematic failure of state and private actors to protect the life, security and dignity of people.

‘There were undoubted individual wrongdoers in this tragedy, but there was also a wider institutional and societal indifference that allowed them to act with impunity.

‘What happened at Grenfell Tower demonstrates an essential problem with the way the golden rule of faith and ethics is applied: that we don’t necessarily do unto others as we’d have them do unto us when we do not or cannot conceive of being in their position.

‘We do not imagine that their home could be our home. We do not appreciate the power imbalances they endure. We do not live by the premise that in all of life’s profit and loss, we are ultimately neighbours.

‘The evidence painstakingly assembled and heard by this inquiry tells us that we must.’

Friedman was also one of several lawyers to raise the failure of government to implement the recommendations of the inquiry’s first phase – particularly the provision of personal emergency evacuation plans (PEEPs) for residents with disabilities.

‘The high number of deaths amongst disabled residents of Grenfell is a landmark fact of this disaster. But it has yet to be acted on,’ he said.

‘That leads to our emphatic plea. The inquiry must issue an urgent interim report to leave the government in no doubt as to why the intransigent do-nothing status quo is dangerous and in violation of current law.

‘This inquiry, combining legal authority, evidential wisdom, and objectivity is uniquely placed to incontrovertibly say this. Waiting until the publication of your final report is too late.’