The Grenfell Tower Inquiry, appointed to hear evidence from witnesses and survivors of the tragedy, has been the focus of repeated criticism. In particular, the appointment of Sir Martin Moore-Bick as Chairman of the Inquiry on June 29, 2017, offended many, who were outraged by his initial decision to exclude independent members from his appointments to the Inquiry panel. Survivors and relatives of victims continue to feel overlooked. Moore-Bick has faced “sighing and tutting” in residents’ meetings, and barrister Michael Mansfield QC has compared the Grenfell Inquiry’s proceedings to that of the Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, which is now onto a fourth chairman as a result of “not consult[ing] with the families and the survivors”.
Following the Inquiry’s first hearings, some survivors called for a delay in proceedings of up to six weeks, in order to seek advice of their own and to access legal resources beyond that of the Inquiry. Pressure from a number of organisations, including Grenfell United*, has affected some change. The government has now agreed that two experts will sit with Moore-Bick during the second stage of the Inquiry, expected to commence some time in 2019.
Aside from Grenfell United’s efforts, the changes in the Inquiry’s make-up are also indicative of a growing interest in the assistance that legal support groups are offering. A number of organisations have emerged to assist those affected by the tragedy, hoping to improve upon those areas in which the Inquiry is perceived to have failed. Though not directly involved, these groups have been vital in providing legal assistance during the immediate aftermath of the fire and the legal proceedings that have followed. Beyond the legal expertise these support groups provide, they boast a number of advantages over the Inquiry: immediate proximity, long-term integration, and established strategies for diversity.
The North Kensington Law Centre (NKLC) is one organisation that has worked extensively with the survivors and relatives. The NKLC, established in 1970 as the first Law Centre of its kind in the UK, prides itself on providing “justice for some of the most poor and disadvantaged in the North Kensington communities”, and on continuing to operate as “a legal service with a social conscience”. In the immediate aftermath, the NKLC operated daily ‘drop-in’ clinics for survivors who required legal support; in particular, the NKLC was keen to represent undocumented individuals affected by the tragedy. The Law Centre released a statement offering impartial and free legal advice to affected, undocumented individuals who, under a new governmental scheme, were permitted to remain in the UK for up to 12 months following the fire.
One reason why the NKLC was able to provide a more efficient response was its physical proximity. A representative from NKLC has noted that Grenfell Tower stands a mere “350 yards” from the NKLC, which is located on Whitchurch Road. As a result, the NKLC was able to send representatives almost immediately. Once there, they were able to address legal needs and what they have described as “bread and butter issues”—which, while important to survivors, may otherwise have been overlooked by larger organisation. These issues included filling in the paperwork associated with finances and compensation, and more unexpected costs such as refunding flights and planned holidays. Alongside these issues, the NKLC also provided, and is providing, lawyers to represent those who otherwise cannot afford them.
Commenting on the Grenfell Inquiry, the NKLC noted that the concerns expressed by former residents and survivors about the panel’s make-up “were very real” and “legitimate”. The Law Centre commented that, although confidence in the Inquiry is gradually increasing—as a result of, for example, the decision for the 72 ‘pen-portraits’ of the victims of the tragedy to be publicly heard before the panel—it’s ultimately up to the survivors and relatives to decide whether or not they have been amply represented.
Other organisations, such as Grenfell Legal Support (GLS), took advantage of their long-term integration with the local community. Headed by Abbas Nawrozzadeh and Khatija Sacranie, GLS acted as a voluntary liaison service between those affected by the Grenfell fire and legal representatives. In particular, GLS advised those affected on the proper methods of retention and collation of evidence. GLS also oversaw, and is still overseeing, the legal proceedings surrounding the fire, in an effort to ensure that vulnerable survivors aren’t being exploited.
Abbas Nawrozzadeh noted that GLS worked closely alongside the Al-Manaar Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre, located on Acklam Road, following the fire. This relationship had, however, been established before the tragedy, as Khatija Sacranie had worked as a teacher at the Centre. GLS was also able to take advantage of relationships with other support groups such as NKLC and BME Lawyers 4 Grenfell.
The latter group, consisting of a number of leading BME community justice organisations, has been particularly successful in lobbying national politicians. The organisation conducted a meeting at the House of Commons, in which they challenged the appointment of Moore-Bick as Inquiry Chair, challenged a notice that sought to limit survivors’ compensation rights, and successfully extended the period of consultation for the Inquiry’s Terms of Reference. Abbas Nawrozzadeh commented that working alongside groups such as the NKLC and BME Lawyers 4 Grenfell created a powerful sense of “them and us”, which the Inquiry would find hard to disregard.
As well as immediate and localised legal support, the fire has also prompted a wider conversation concerning the legal rights of those living in social housing. Shelter’s ‘Big Conversation’, for instance, was launched in early 2018 with the aim of encouraging a national debate. Through a series of roadshows, an online public discussion and a major piece of research consulting tenants about the state of their housing, the ‘Big Conversation’ is determined to “give social housing tenants across the country, starting with the Grenfell community itself, a far louder say in the future of social housing”. A strength of the commission is its particular focus on diversity. The commission is made up of 17 members, chaired by Reverend Mike Long of the Notting Hill Methodist Church near Grenfell. Other members include Baroness Warsi, the first Muslim cabinet member, former Labour leader Ed Miliband, architect George Clarke, and Edward Daffarn, a survivor of the fire and a representative of Grenfell United.
Shelter has also been vital in campaigning for the passage of the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill 2017-2019, legislation provoked in part by the conditions in which many Grenfell residents were forced to live. The Bill aims to amend the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985, making it a requirement that residential rented accommodation is provided and maintained in a state of fitness for human habitation. In this way, support groups such as Shelter have not only provided immediate relief for those affected by the fire, but have also taken the tragedy as an opportunity to publicise the wider legal issues facing tenants across the UK.
Legal support groups have provided a nuanced and sensitive approach to both the immediate problems presented by the fire, and larger national issues. As the Grenfell Tower Inquiry continues, it may be hoped that it has learned from the success of this approach.
* Grenfell United is the main group of survivors and bereaved families from the Grenfell Tower fire. They have come together to campaign for safe homes, justice and change.