Justice for Grenfell – what does it mean?
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.
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Grenfell residents must not be ‘excluded’ from their own inquiry, warns Michael Mansfield QC. Catherine Baksi reports
Beware the culture of denial and institutional defensiveness: Pete Weatherby QC
With the horror of the disaster still raw, all of our thoughts will be with the bereaved and injured at this time. In particular our thoughts will be with those going through the extreme distress of not yet knowing whether their loved ones survived. But as the immediate shock and horror subsides, the above questions will require straightforward and candid answers.
Pete Weatherby QC
It comes on top of profound personal and practical challenges. There are funerals to arrange, ongoing searches for survivors, lost documents, relatives travelling from overseas, and randomised offers of cash and other help. The families are not doing this from the familiar comfort of their homes, but from hotel rooms scattered across west London, under intense media and political scrutiny, and at the height of their grief and anger.
Their tragedy has brought the government to the very edge of its authority, and well-intentioned lawyers are commentating over the victims’ heads about what’s best for them. The families can’t possibly be in the right frame of mind to think about the inquest/inquiry debate, and it’s important that we don’t have this discussion without them.
It’s impossible to know what’s going through the minds of the members of the community who marched from the town hall to the tower holding placards calling for justice, but the lack of a single, unified mechanism for achieving justice shows what an elusive concept it is. Public accountability can’t compensate for the victims’ losses, and neither can a corporate conviction or the dismissal of a senior official. Claims for damages and new accommodation can never really replace a lost community, and the awards will hardly have an impact on those who are responsible.
Justice is piecemeal, and the families may come to find that very frustrating.
And of course justice – if by ‘justice’ we mean ‘the law’ – had already let the Grenfell families down long before the fire. As is explained here there’s very little existing law that could have helped the Grenfell residents by, for example, forcing the landlord to take preventative steps, so it probably would have made little difference if prophetic warnings about fire risk had reached the council on solicitors’ notepaper rather than a community blog.
Whatever civil and criminal liabilities are established, there is a broader question of justice. What happened at Grenfell, when seen in the longer-term scheme of social deprivation, has been described as ‘social violence’. That’s certainly an analysis echoed by the residents speaking on the steps of the town hall in the days after the fire. They spoke with eloquent anger, describing the high-handed way in which poor communities are treated.
Their analysis came from their lived experience, and marching from the town hall to Grenfell it became clear how they had reached their understanding. A few hundred metres from the tower is (what was) a large Victorian school but is now a monstrously big Virgin Active private gym. Next door, the site of a social centre and residential hospital for people with HIV/AIDS was sold in 2015 to become the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising. Like so much of the UK the remaining social housing is now peppered among the former local authority stock that has been sold into private hands over the last 30 years. The process of dismantling this part of London has been going on for a very long time. How does the community seek a form of justice for the longer term causes of its destruction?
Grenfell residents are fortunate that the first law centre – North Kensington – has been a part of their community for more than 40 years. Miraculously, it’s still going in spite of the legal aid cuts (although the sorry state of legal aid funding means that many law centres need support from local authorities and there might well be concerns in the community that the centre receives council funding – Kensington & Chelsea has treated the victims outrageously, and any perceived link between the law centre and local government must be difficult for the families to accept).
Of course, the residents have no cause for concern. North Kensington Law Centre has spent decades embedded in the community, fighting against poor housing conditions. As the forerunner of the law centre movement it is part of a radical system of self-organised community resistance to race-and class-based exploitations. As well as countless victories against landlords, bosses and bureaucrats, its solicitors have been seminal in fighting against poor accommodation in the borough and represented the victims of the 1981 Clanricarde Gardens fire (which killed nine and mainly affected migrant workers).
The law centre’s specialist housing solicitors have been supported by Shelter and the Housing Law Practitioners’ Association (certainly some of the best housing lawyers I know have been in Latimer Road over the past few days), as well as specialists in immigration and other fields. There has also been a great deal of general support. One family I worked with was having trouble securing accommodation over the phone and I asked two volunteers to present to the homeless persons’ unit on their behalf: two lawyers from magic circle solicitors’ firms made what must have been the poshest homelessness application in history.
And, although the facts are still very unclear, it seems that most of the families have (quite rightly) been found temporary accommodation in and around the borough. This is a nice argument for homelessness lawyers, who are used to local authorities telling them that there’s no accommodation available in the community where their client lived: ‘if even Kensington and Chelsea, even after the Grenfell fire, managed to accommodate locally, why can’t you?’.
Standing near the tower just before last week’s candlelight vigil, it was clear that this was a community that cared for itself. Older children from the estate were checking up on each other, making sure they were getting by and arranging to meet later. Neighbours were giving out fruit to the people who had come to stand in solidarity with their community. People were standing on stairwells and balconies to hear the speakers. If this community has even a fraction of that spirit under ordinary circumstances their sneering new neighbours in luxury flats are lucky to have them, and they deserve the very best justice available.
The families will fight for a form of justice that attempts to reflect the losses and horrors that they’ve suffered. Various legal processes may help with that. But there is also a need for a broader, political route to justice: no doubt the community hopes to seek a form of justice that accounts for the disdain with which they were treated in the decades leading up to the fire, as well as in its aftermath.
Nick Bano is a social welfare lawyer at 1MCB Chambers. Nick is one of the legal volunteers who have been helping with the response.