19:16, December 08 746 0 theguardian.com

2017-12-08 19:16:03
Grenfell victims’ families 'should be placed at heart of inquiry'

Bereaved relatives and survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire must be placed at the heart of the inquiry into the disaster, an organisation supporting them has urged.

The plea by Inquest for victims’ families and their lawyers to be able participate more fully comes before a two-day hearing of the inquiry, which starts in central London on Monday.

Adopting procedures from the long-running Hillsborough inquiry – in particular, helping prepare and listening to emotional “pen portraits” of all of those who died – would broaden public confidence in the investigation, it is claimed.

Inquest – which supports relatives at coroners’ court and inquiries – and many of the families are also asking for more advisory panel members to be appointed, reflecting the diverse, cultural and religious make-up of the surrounding west London community.

An online petition calling on the prime minister to appoint more panel members and allow lawyers for the bereaved to “see all evidence from the start [and be] allowed to question witnesses at the hearings” is aiming to collect 100,000 signatures.

Adel Chaoui, who lost family members in the fire on 14 June, said: “Bereaved families are desperate that the deaths of our loved ones are learnt from, and a tragedy like this, that should have been avoided after the Lakanal House fire [in south London in 2009], never happens again.

“Previously the Stephen Lawrence inquiry benefited from a diverse and representative panel, and the full involvement of legal representatives. It’s not enough after the 71 deaths that we cannot have either.

“Our representatives need to be able to phrase how our questions are delivered. They need to be able to react to the answers. They need to be able to prod and press for the truth.

“We fear the prime minister’s current position does not go far enough to assure us that we’ll have access to a balanced and unbiased inquiry. Or indeed that we will have a fair, impartial and honest chance of justice. We urge her to reconsider and put our minds to rest over the matter.”

Many of the families have warned Theresa May that they may not participate in the public inquiry into the blaze unless the judge leading it makes the process more inclusive and allows them more direct involvement.

Earlier this month, 50 bereaved families and a large number of survivors issued a joint statement for the first time since the tragedy, calling on the prime minister to “take urgent action to restore our faith” in the inquiry.

They asked for the inquiry not to be led by the retired judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick alone but that he be assisted by an expanded panel made up of people with a “real understanding of the issues facing those affected”.

Inquest is also calling for a “safe and private space” to support relatives at the hearing as well as providing mental health support. It has called on the inquiry to uphold the human rights of those affected by recognising its obligation under article 2 of the European convention on human rights, which guarantees the right to life.

Deborah Coles, the director of Inquest, said: “Grenfell is a shocking injustice and the need for the inquiry to get to the truth is of value to us all. It can only do this if the individual voices of the bereaved and survivors are not lost and silenced. Recognising the bereaved as victims, placing them at the heart of the inquiry, is essential to help humanise the legal process.

“To assuage the profound anger and mistrust requires meaningful engagement of those affected, along with prompt, full and proper disclosure and a panel representative of the community. This can help instil confidence and encourage participation. Without this the inquiry will be flawed and will fail those seeking the truth and justice they deserve.”

On Monday and Tuesday those granted core participant status, survivors, bereaved families and their lawyers, will be allowed to sit in the main hearing room in Holborn, central London. Those unable to travel will be able to watch a live-stream of the event at the Notting Hill Methodist church near Grenfell Tower.

A spokesperson for the inquiry said it was “committed to ensuring that those most directly affected by the fire are able to participate in its work and that their voices are heard.

“One of the main purposes of the procedural hearing next week is to discuss with those acting for the bereaved, the survivors and other local residents how those aims can best be achieved and the effectiveness of the inquiry ensured.

“A large number of individuals and organisations have been granted core participant status and the inquiry also continues to run weekly drop-in sessions in north Kensington for anyone wanting to raise any questions directly with the inquiry team.”