Spotlight on: Sir Martin Moore-Bick

With extensive legal experience and over 20 years as a judge, Sir Martin Moore-Bick has earned praise and respect from both his legal peers and the highest echelons of government. Now, at the age of 71, he has been tasked to discover the truth in the independent public inquiry investigating the Grenfell Tower fire.

  • Last updated 12-Dec-2018 12:13:52
  • Elizabeth Hurst

Name: Sir Martin Moore-Bick.

Current role: Heading the public enquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster. 

Notable for: Sir Martin’s 50-year legal career is as varied as the positions he has held: from the Queen’s Counsel, receiving a knighthood while serving in the Commercial Court of the High Court in 1995, up to his appointment as Lord Justice of Appeal.

Early life: Sir Martin was born in Wales along with his younger brother John Moore-Bick, a now-retired major general in the British Army. He was educated at The Skinners’ Grammar School in Tunbridge Wells and Christ’s College, Cambridge, of which he became an Honorary Fellow in 2009. 

Legal career: According to Sir Martin’s chambers, 20 Essex Street, he began his legal career specialising in commercial contracts, particularly disputes relating to maritime and land transport of goods, and banking and financial matters. Sir Martin was called to the Bar in 1969 by the Inner Temple and was appointed Queen’s Counsel in 1986. He was then elected a Bencher in 1992 and became treasurer in 2015. He served in the Commercial Court of the High Court in 1995, for which he received a knighthood, before being appointed to the Court of Appeal in April 2005 where he was adviser to Lord Falconer and Jack Straw.

Over his 20 years as a judge, Sir Martin heard a wide variety of commercial, civil and criminal cases. He retired as a Lord Justice of Appeal and as vice-president of the civil division of the Court of Appeal in December 2016, as is required at the age of 70. Since retirement, he has served on Gibraltar’s court of appeal.

Accused of allowing “social cleansing”: One of Sir Martin’s more controversial cases occurred in 2015 when the judge allowed Westminster City Council to rehouse a tenant 50 miles away. The case involved Titina Nzolameso, a single mother of five children, who suffered from serious health problems including depression, diabetes and high blood pressure. After a Government benefits cap made the rent on her London flat unaffordable, she was offered new accommodation in Bletchley, near Milton Keynes. Nzolameso refused the offer, stating that moving 50 miles away to Buckinghamshire would disrupt her children’s schooling and deprive her of the vital network of friends that supported her when she was unwell. Due to her refusal to move, Westminster City Council in its role of local housing authority came to the conclusion that she had made herself “intentionally homeless” and its statutory duty to secure her accommodation had come to an end, under the terms of the Housing Act 1996.

In a ruling in November 2014, Sir Martin concluded that the authority could rehouse Nzolameso in Buckinghamshire, adding that it wasn't necessary for the council to explain in detail what other accommodation was available and that the council could take “a broad range of factors” into account when deciding what housing was available.

Following Sir Martin’s ruling, Jayesh Kunwardia of Hodge Jones & Allen Solicitors (which represented Nzolameso) said: “This judgment could have dire consequences for vulnerable families across the country. [...] It gives the green light for councils to engage in social cleansing of the poor on a mass scale. [...] Council tenants are being threatened with homelessness unless they agree to uproot themselves from communities they've lived in for years.”

Sir Martin’s decision was ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court in April 2015. In her ruling, Lady Hale said that while out-of- borough placements weren’t prohibited, the authority hadn’t properly explained their decision or provided evidence to show that their offer of the property in Bletchley “was sufficient to discharge their legal obligations” under laws governing the housing of homeless people.

Human rights and deportation: Sir Martin was involved in a contentious deportation case, where he had to assess whether a Chinese-born man who tied up, threatened and robbed two women in their flat could avoid being removed from the UK on the basis of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees a right to family life. Ultimately, Sir Martin ruled that the public interest in seeing the man returned to China outweighed the human rights of the criminal’s children (who remained in the UK with his partner) and that his situation did not amount to “exceptional circumstances” that would have allowed him to stay in Britain. 

The decision was praised by Dominic Raab, who said, “This is a welcome ruling, some long-awaited common sense on the application of Article 8. But one swallow doesn’t make a summer— we need to see the whole approach to deportation reoriented to put public protection first.”

Case spotlight: Grenfell Tower Inquiry: The Grenfell Tower fire broke out in the 24-storey Grenfell Tower block of flats in North Kensington, West London. It’s thought that the fire was started by a malfunctioning fridgefreezer on the fourth floor. Emergency services received the first news of the fire at 12:54am. The block burned for an estimated 60 hours before it was extinguished. Although 223 people managed to escape the blaze, the fire caused 72 deaths and over 70 other injuries. It is the deadliest structural fire in the UK since the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster, and the worst residential fire since the end of the Second World War. 

Sir Martin was chosen by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, to chair the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. His nomination was accepted by Downing Street, which praised him as being “highly respected [and] hugely experienced”. Sir Martin’s knowledge of contract law will be applied during the inquiry’s investigation, particularly into the overlapping layers of responsibility that have accumulated around the Grenfell Tower renovations. Police have revealed that 60 different firms have been involved in the refurbishment of the tower, which includes the controversial insulation and cladding that was added during 2015-16.

The independent public inquiry began on September 14 last year, to examine the circumstances leading up to and surrounding the fire. A list of 13 issues was released on June 4th this year, containing questions on Grenfell Towers’s original design, construction and composition (completed in 1974), subsequent modifications prior to the most recent interior modifications and exterior modifications (including adding cladding and insulation) between 2012–2016. Other issues include fire-and-safety measures within the building at the time of the fire, the fire itself, the response of the emergency services and the aftermath.

Labour MP David Lammy, who lost a friend in the fire, said that the judge needs to overcome widespread suspicion. “The victims of Grenfell Tower, their families and the survivors will need Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s independence and impartiality during the course of this public inquiry. They will need his experience and his judicial mind, but above all else they will need his empathy.” Sir Martin said he understood the desire for a “vigorous” investigation that “gets to the truth as quickly as possible”. He said the purpose of his inquiry was to “discover the truth” about what happened, to “ensure that a tragedy of this kind never happens again”.

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