Grenfell tower disaster

public inquiry -v- inquest

It seems that in recent weeks we have had so much tragedy. The Manchester bombing, the other terror attacks in London and on Wednesday this week the terrible news of the fire at Grenfell Tower. As tragedies like this unfold we see in the media heart wrenching stories and pleas from family members whose loved ones are missing and feared dead.

how on earth in 2017 could an event like this happen in London......this is a man made disaster!

Last night I saw such stories on the news and felt extremely saddened by their accounts of what had happened. Stories of people receiving phone calls from people trapped in the building who called clearly knowing they were to perish saying their goodbyes. The sadness then turned to a sense of anger, How on earth in 2017 could an event like this happen in London. This is not an act of terror such as a shooting or suicide bomb, or an unpreventable act of nature like a devastating storm or tsunami. This is a man made disaster! Of course at this point we do not know exactly how the fire started, but to me that is of little consequence, the main question is; why did it spread so quickly with such devastating results?

Also reported last night was the fact the Prime Minister Theresa May had ordered a public inquiry after visiting the scene and speaking with emergency workers. Later on Newsnight this was again reported and comment was invited from Solicitor Sophie Khan who apparently acted for families following the fire at Lakanal House which killed 6 people in 2009.

She questioned why Theresa May came out so quickly to announce a public inquiry, suggested that the Prime Minster knew something that needed to be hidden and said that public inquiries are run and controlled by government. She went on to say that families should campaign for an inquest rather than a public inquiry and that there could only be one or the other.

Unfortunately Sophie you are completely wrong! The government does not have the power to order an inquest this is the role of the Coroner and there will inevitably be inquests held in relation to all of those who have died in this tragedy.

Part of the interview is reported by the Independent and can be viewed here.

It is simply not the case that there is only one or the other, you only have look at the Hillsborough disaster as an example. The Taylor Inquiry was announced by Margaret Thatcher shortly after she visited the stadium the day after the disaster, but we also know that there were inquests. In fact to be absolutely correct there were 192 inquests, two inquests took place for each of the 96 men, women and children who died in the disaster.

The verdicts at the original the inquests in 1989 were all of accidental death which caused much upset for the families of those who died. Their campaigning for over 20 years ultimately led to the High Court quashing the original verdicts following an application by the Attorney General Dominic Grieve. New inquests started on 31st March 2014 and ran for over two years and resulted in verdicts of unlawful killing.

So what is the difference between a public inquiry and an inquest?

Whilst Sophie Khan is right that government do set the terms of reference for a public inquiry, they are not controlled by the government as she said, nor are families barred from taking part (indeed the families of the Hillsborough Disaster were represented at the Taylor Inquiry). A public inquiry is an official review of events or actions and is judicially run by a chair, usually by a High Court Judge. The inquiry will hear both oral and written submissions from interested parties and will also hear live evidence from witnesses. Interested parties (who are nominated by the chair) are able to cross examine witnesses and make submissions.

An inquest has an entirely different role, the primary role is to find the answer to three questions, who, where and how the deceased came by their deaths. In addition, where there are concerns that there is a risk of further deaths occurring, the Coroner also has a legal power and duty to write a report after inquest. This is known as a 'report under regulation 28' or a Preventing Future Deaths (PFD) report as the statutory power comes from regulation 28 of the Coroners (Inquests) Regulations 2013.

Should there be both an inquest and a public inquiry?

The fact is, there will be. Whilst inquests have not yet been formally opened, they will take place and will inevitably be wide reaching.

Clearly there needs to be a balance between the families understanding quickly what went so catastrophically wrong and ensuring that other tower blocks are made safe but equally they will need to ensure that that both the inquest and inquiry have the time to gather all of the information needed to reach informed conclusions.

One of the topics covered by the Hillsborough inquest related to stadium safety and included the full history of the stadium and its development and planning over the years. This one topic heard evidence over several months on questions regarding changes and developments, were they done according to plan, how they were funded, were those plans approved, who approved them and were they in accordance with applicable laws and regulations at the time? In a similar way the whole history of the tower will need to be dissected and scrutinised and this will clearly take some time. But will hopefully result in government, local councils, manufacturers and developers etc.learning from what went so terribly wrong and ensuring that such a dreadful event never happens again.

Is funding available for families at inquests?

What is also crucial is that families receive the legal support and funding required so that they are properly represented at both tribunals. Whilst legal aid can be available for family members at inquests, the process of securing funding is not easy and grieving families have many hoops to jump through and potentially face battles with the Legal Aid Agency to secure funding. This whole process needs to be made simpler and more accessible to the families of the innocent victims of this tragedy to ensure that they get the answers that they deserve.

Jonathan Wall