01:14, June 19 228 0 theguardian.com

2017-06-19 01:14:03
Why the Grenfell Tower tragedy needs a rapid public inquiry, not an inquest

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 into possible corporate manslaughter offences and health and safety investigations by the fire service and the Health and Safety Executive can take years and cause long delays to uncovering the truth. In a 35-year career as a lawyer I have seen this many times. 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 for much the same reasons (a head-on collision caused by poor visibility of red lights) – an inquiry delayed two years by a police investigation. 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. 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. 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.

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Grenfell Tower cladding banned in UK, says Hammond – video

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 so that victims and the community can have as much clout as those in the frame for negligence.

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.