The Grenfell Tower Inquiry, Put Simply

By Blog Writer Megan Field

The Grenfell Tower Inquiry, which Danny Friedman QC hopes will be a “proud and positive example of justice and equality”, saw the start of a two day procedural hearing on Monday. Led by retired judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick, the investigation aims to determine exactly what happened on the 14th June 2017, why it happened, and how such occurrences can be prevented in the future.

Public inquiries are ordered by the government to scrutinise issues of public concern, meaning Westminster outlines the scope of the investigation. Whereas a court case is adversarial, inquiries are inquisitorial; it is not a case of pitting one party against the other but rather working cohesively to examine the facts. The procedural hearing held this week is one step in this process, in which the core participants, namely, survivors, residents, and relatives of the victims, can address the Chairman on a number of case management issues. This includes topics such as the timetable for the inquiry or disclosure of evidence.

The Metropolitan Police Force also stated on Monday they are investigating a number of offences including manslaughter, corporate manslaughter, misconduct in public office, and breaches of fire safety regulations. Acting on a scale rarely seen outside of a counterterrorism operation, 187 officers and civilian staff have gathered 31 million documents, 2,500 physical exhibits and 1,144 witness statements.

Asides from these figures, the focal point of the hearing was largely the question of whether the inquiry is failing to represent “those people most affected”, as articulated by Michael Mansfield QC, who represents the survivors and their families. Mansfield told the Chairman “you yourself cannot be expected to reflect the diversity” of the victims. Echoing this, Barrister Leslie Thomas delivered an impassioned speech on the second day of the hearing, stating “look at the lawyers… How many of them have lived in a tower block or on a council estate or in social housing?” If people don’t feel represented, he went on to explain, they will the lack the confidence to participate which is a hindrance to justice. A petition was handed in to Downing Street on Tuesday which calls for Theresa May to appoint a panel that reflects the diversity of the local community. The body would sit alongside Sir Martin Moore-Bick, but it remains to be seen whether the Prime Minister will concede. Families of survivors believe panel members with expertise on wider social issues could bring a broader perspective to the investigative process.

Public sentiment is also not currently in the government’s favour, given recent revelations that four out of five families made homeless in the event are still looking for new housing. Commenting on Monday, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn labelled these figures a “disgrace”, calling for answers from the government. This can only serve to heighten the profile, and thus importance, of the inquiry.

Significantly, Britain’s human rights watchdog, the EHRC, was rejected in it’s application to be a core participant in the official inquiry - leading it to launch it’s own “project”. In contrast with the official inquiry, the project will focus on the state’s obligation to residents under the Human Rights Act, a dimension which they feel is missing from the government’s investigation. Such a move is controversial; the commission has the potential to draw damning conclusions on the role of the state and could threaten to overshadow the official inquiry. Nonetheless, the body’s Chair, David Isaac, defended the decision, stating the project will be a “lens through which the official inquiry wishes to see things”. Isaac also highlighted that “human rights are for everybody”, and the EHRC has a “statutory duty” to protect them. With the body due to publish it’s findings in April, considerably earlier than the government report, it is unclear as to which will have the most impact.  

Regardless of how the issue is framed, everyone is ultimately asking the same question- “how on Earth, in the 21st century, in one of the richest boroughs of the United Kingdom, can a block like this just go up in flames?” (Michael Mansfield QC). For all the uncertainty surrounding the inquiry, one thing is for sure, each and everyone one of us should be concerned with how the investigation unfolds; a national atrocity of this scale surely harbours unsettling truths about the condition of our society.

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Image @Wikimedia Commons

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