JusticeWatch: Justice for Grenfell

In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, lawyers have been weighing up whether a public inquiry or an inquest was the best way to understand the reasons for this shocking tragedy. In light of the PM’s rapidly diminishing political capital, Theresa May’s endorsement of the former rang hollow.

Solicitor advocate Sophie Khan told BBC’s Newsnight in strident terms that an inquest was ‘the right way’ (here). ‘The coroner is independent of the government. In a public inquiry it is very much government led,’ she said. ‘There are very limited rules in public inquiries. It is very much government led, government controlled, government outcome.’

Khan also insisted it was an ‘either/ or’ binary situation. ‘You can’t have both,’ she told Kirsty Wark. ‘I’m very concerned as to why Mrs May came out so quickly to say “public inquiry”. What is there that she knows that needs to be hidden?’

Writing for the Justice Gap, the human rights barrister Simon McKay attacked arguments that ‘created suspicion that some hidden agenda exists in the format of how an examination of these tragic events takes place’ and, as such, were ‘fallacious if not irresponsible’.

Not only that, McKay (and numerous lawyers) pointed out that Khan was wrong in law. ‘The two are not mutually exclusive, an inquest cannot apportion blame – either in terms of civil or criminal liability – and not everyone affected by the fire has lost their life,’ he argued. ‘The survivors as well as the families of the great many who have died are entitled to answers. A public inquiry is in principle the best forum to address the range of issues that will need to be addressed in the aftermath of this terrible, grotesque tragedy.’

‘It’s not a matter of “do we have an inquiry or do we have an inquest” – you have both for goodness sake,’ Michael Mansfield QC told a specially convened meeting of people living in the area – as reported by Catherine Baksi for LV here. Speaking later, Mansfield told Baksi that the government might have appointed a senior judge to preside over the inquiry already and be drafting its terms of reference.  ‘Inquests are for dealing with the dead,’ he said. ‘Inquiries are much wider and are dealing with survivors, as well as those who have died and are missing.’

Hillsborough highlighted the need for the bereaved to be fully and effectively involved in the investigations and public inquiry, argued Garden Court North’s Pete Weatherby QC. The barrister led the team that represented 22 of the Hillsborough families.

‘One of the key lessons from Hillsborough was that some of the main authorities covered up what had happened and continued to deny their responsibility for decades thereafter.  That led to a shocking and iconic miscarriage of justice which persisted for more than 25 years.’
Pete Weatherby QC

Meanwhile Nick Bano, a social welfare lawyer at 1 MCB Chambers, wrote about how ‘the whole gamut of the law has descended on [residents and survivors] like a plague, and at the worst possible moment’ – again, the Justice Gap (here). Bano was one of the legal volunteers who had been helping the families.

‘Think for a moment about what – practically – the victims of the Grenfell disaster are facing. Perhaps very few of them have had any experience of the legal system before, but as a result of last week’s fire they will all have to contend with virtually every type of proceeding that the law has invented: coronial courts, criminal investigations, civil claims for damages, homelessness reviews, migration decisions, welfare benefits challenges, inquests and inquiries. The whole gamut of the law has descended on them like a plague, and at the worst possible moment.’
Nick Bano

Putting the boot in
Leigh Day senior partner Martyn Day told John Hyde in an interview for the Law Society’s Gazette that his prosecution by the Solicitors Regulation Authority was part of a ‘bigger picture of a political game’ aimed at muzzling human rights defenders. ‘We always felt very strongly that the Ministry of Defence in particular, but all the way up to the prime minister, him and then herself, they had a very big political battle to fight attacking the Human Rights Act, attacking human rights lawyers and we were the right people at the right time as far as they were concerned,’ Day said. ‘This all became a part of that bigger picture of a political game.’

In an interview with the Guardian, Day said that it was ‘clear that the government took a very strong interest in the prosecution – both of Phil Shiner and us’. ‘And the fact that [the Ministry of Defence] said it was ‘disappointed’ by the [tribunal] outcome is an indicator,’ the solicitor continued. ‘It was totally inappropriate. It was an outrage that the prime minister was putting the boot into us at the time that the regulator was investigating us. [Ministers] said we were bringing spurious claims but 90% of them were settled.

‘The [government] agenda was clear: they hate human rights, they hate human rights lawyers and there’s a big agenda for supporting the army … They could restore crown immunity [for the armed forces] but I think even [senior officers] are warning that the army should not be above the law.’
Martyn Day

No fool
I profiled the new Lord Chancellor for the New Law Journal. ‘Our new Lord Chancellor is now the fourth non-legally qualified occupant of one of the most ancient offices of state in a row,’ the article began. ‘David Lidington might not be a lawyer but, as a double winner of University Challenge, it seems reasonable to surmise that he’s no fool.’ You can read the article here.

There was a legislative programme comprising 27 bills announced in a slimmed down Queen’s Speech on Wednesday including eight that dealt with Brexit. The Law Society was broadly enthusiastic about the government’s legislative programme as unveiled in this week’s Queen’s Speech. It ‘set out a comprehensive agenda with much that will be received positively by the solicitor profession’, the Law Society said.

‘Unravelling and redefining ties and laws made over the past 40 years, while providing as much certainty to individuals and businesses as is possible is a task of real complexity,’ said Law Society president Robert Bourns. ‘The government’s focus on providing this certainty is welcomed, and we hope the series of bills announced today will allow Parliament to work through these issues carefully, and give them the scrutiny they deserve.’

Although Chancery Lane was not impressed with the government’s decision ‘to revive “misguided” reforms to whiplash injury claims’. Robert Bourns said: ‘It will be a clear injustice if the government persists with denying essential legal advice to those injured through no fault of their own – if the government is truly committed to targeting fraudulent claims, it should do just that.’

A 28-month pilot of the online court (proposals to be set out in the Courts Bill) is to start next month, according to Legal Futures (here). Apparently, the court service will provide ‘face-to-face assistance to the half of people signed up to it who are expected to need help with filling in forms’. It reported: ‘According to newly published papers from May’s meeting of the Civil Procedure Rule Committee (CPRC), the “pilot for new digital procedure for money claims under £10,000” will run from 31 July 2017 to 30 November 2019’.

The Queen’s Speech also included plans for a public advocate for bereaved families at inquests.

About Jon Robins

Jon is a journalist and has written about the law and justice for the national papers and specialist press for more than 15 years. Jon is a visiting journalism lecturer at Winchester University, a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln and patron of Hackney Community Law Centre. He has won the Bar Council’s legal reporter of the year award twice (2015 and 2005). Jon is editor and co-founder of LegalVoice

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