As the public inquiry into the fire at Grenfell Tower officially opens today, legal experts have expressed concerns over the timing of the investigation, which comes just three months after the tragedy and runs parallel to criminal proceedings.
The former head of the Government Legal Department, Sir Paul Jenkins, said that while it was important to get answers as quickly as possible, “one can’t imagine the level of trauma” victims – who need to be at the heart of the process – are going through.
At an event run by the Institute for Government think tank, Jenkins, a barrister currently practicing at Matrix Chambers, added that it may come to a point where conversations need to be had about whether to prioritise findings or criminal convictions.
This may lead to a pause in the inquiry, perhaps even a “three-year gap” until survivors of the fire – which killed at least 80 people – find out exactly what happened, he said.
The event attempted to distill some of the lessons that can be learned from previous public inquires, such as Leveson and Hillsborough.
But Jenkins, who served as the chief Treasury solicitor as well as permanent secretary to the Attorney General, said: “Lessons are never learned… is the eternal cry of those of us in the Government Legal Service who, year after year, had to set up yet another inquiry and say, why is there no repository of expertise?”
Today saw the opening session of the inquiry, which is led by Sir Martin James Moore-Bick and assisted by a team of civil servants, including Mark Fisher, former director of the office for civil society and innovation in the Cabinet Office, and Caroline Featherstone, a former deputy director in the Government Legal Department.
In his opening statement, Moore-Bick said that while he is prohibited from determining criminal liability, he would not shy away from publishing findings from which criminal liability could be inferred.
He is expected to produce an interim report by Easter.
Speaking at the IfG event yesterday, Jenkins pointed to previous public inquiries that failed because they risked prejudicing parallel criminal investigations.
He said it was possible for a judge to grant witnesses indemnity to encourage them to give evidence, but that this would be “not good enough for victims” of the fire.
The Leveson Inquiry was easier to handle because there were so many examples of egregious behaviour by the press that Lord Justice Leveson was able to focus on the ones that were unrelated to the criminal investigation, he added.
Jenkins did, however, express faith in the judge-led model, saying that “if there’s a way of wading through this without prejudicing the criminal process” a judge like Moore-Bick would find it.
Adequate terms of reference?
Moore-Bick, a recently retired Court of Appeal judge, will have full powers, including being able to compel the production of documents and summon witnesses to give evidence under oath.
Concerns have been raised about whether traumatised victims of the fire will be able to give evidence to the inquiry so soon after the event.
Today Moore-Bick said he was “acutely aware” of this challenge, and “open to suggestions about how to obtain evidence in a sensitive and appropriate way”.
His terms of reference include an examination of the immediate causes of the fire; the design and construction of the building; the adequacy of building and fire regulations, and whether they were complied with; actions of Kensington and Chelsea council before the fire; and the response of London fire brigade, central and local government in the immediate aftermath of the fire.
But while Jenkins praised the breadth of these terms – “these things work well if they have a very specific focus” – the director of the North Kensington Law Centre, Victoria Vasey, speaking at the same IfG event, said they did not go far enough.
She said two key things were missing: a wider look at social and housing policy, and the treatment of residents in the weeks and months following the fire.
“I understand the imperative of keeping focus,” she said. “That focus can be wide if it is well structured.”
She added that the parallel criminal process was a “complicating factor but not insurmountable”, and that it could even benefit Moore-Bick by bringing “some evidential value that the inquiry would not be able to access”.