Litigation is ‘inevitable’ after Grenfell Tower fire
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There may be criminal charges after the London tower block fire that killed at least 17 people and injured many more, but lawyers have warned that corporate manslaughter is “notoriously difficult” to prove.
The prime minister has ordered a judge-led public inquiry into the disaster at the Grenfell Tower in north Kensington. In the immediate aftermath of the blaze, the spotlight turned on arrangements between the local council and the privatised management company as well as the contractor that carried out a £10 million refurbishment of the building last year.
It also emerged that as long ago as 2013 the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea sent a legal letter to a local residents' group in a row over issues around the administration of the building. Residents also blamed a recent round of legal aid cuts for their inability to obtain advice regarding what they viewed to be potential breaches of health and safety rules at the council-owned estate.
In July 2013, a senior solicitor at the local authority wrote to the Grenfell Action Group to demand the removal of a blog post that made allegations about the running of the building.
Yesterday, lawyers predicted that litigation around the circumstances of the disaster was “inevitable” and that several causes of actions might be relevant. “There may have been serious failings by the management company, acting on behalf of the local authority, that may give rise to … liability in contract to the tenants of the block and in negligence,” said Adrian McClinton, a solicitor at Coffin Mew, a London and south coast law firm.
“As the management company was acting on behalf of the landlord, any primary liability would initially fall on the local authority. Given the amount of concern raised by the resident’s associations prior to yesterday’s fire, it may be difficult to claim that the local authority did not know about existing problems, if these turn out to be relevant.
Corporate manslaughter is a notoriously difficult charge to successfully bring against any party
“Knowledge of any problems and not taking appropriate steps and/or not carrying out regular inspections may also invalidate any existing insurance held by the local authority.”
However, McClinton cautioned: “Depending on the circumstances, the charge of corporate manslaughter to be brought against certain parties with overall responsibility may become relevant. This is a notoriously difficult charge to successfully bring against any party.”
Lawyers also pointed out that any debate over competence of the work on the recent refurbishment of the block could also lead to claims in negligence against the contractors as well as claims for contribution to compensation payments.
In addition, either the Health and Safety Executive or the Crown Prosecution Service could bring a prosecution against the local authority and its management company for possible breaches of health and safety law including regulations designed to prevent injury or death by fire.
No one has been identified as being at fault for the fire.
Call goes out again for free legal advice
Solicitor leaders added victims of the Grenfell Tower fire to their list of those in need of free legal advice.
The Law Society – the body that represents the profession in England and Wales – was still in the process of compiling a list of law firms, chambers and students who were willing to provide free advice to victims of the London Bridge terror attack when the news of the fire broke.
“The legal profession is again demonstrating huge willingness to help and many are already offering free legal advice to those whose lives have been utterly devastated,” Robert Bourns, the organisation’s president, said.
Bourns said the victims of the fire “will face a different range of legal issues to those affected by terror attacks, and the number of people involved is of a completely different magnitude. We are therefore taking stock, reviewing infrastructure that exists to support victims and looking at what will be needed”.
As of yesterday evening, in addition to the 17 confirmed deaths, more than 30 victims of the fire were still in hospital, at least 17 of whom were in a critical condition.