Pete Weatherby QC is one of Britain’s top lawyers. He represented 22 families in the Hillsborough inquests. On the morning of 16 June, BBC Radio Wales interviewed him about the Grenfell Tower fire. He said:
I think this is a key feature that may have been missed… There’d been swinging legal aid cuts.
Lives might have been saved
We wonder at this point whether in fact those cuts prevented those residents taking proper advice, and whether if they’d taken proper advice they may have been able to challenge the fire safety problems at an earlier stage and there would have then followed proper meaningful remedial work – not just cladding to make the building look better, but actually safety provision to save lives.
It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO [The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation], and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders.
Had residents had access to legal aid, Weatherby suggests, their concerns may well have been acted on, and lives might have been saved.
“They couldn’t get lawyers”
Weatherby is right. Grenfell residents did try to get lawyers. But they couldn’t, thanks to legal aid cuts, according to campaigner Pilgrim Tucker, who worked with them for several months. Speaking to BBC Newsnight on 14 June, Tucker said:
These are poor residents – or they’re ordinary residents. They’re not the wealthy. They’re not the Camerons. They can’t afford private schools, they can’t afford lawyers. They tried to get lawyers but, because of the legal aid cuts, they couldn’t get lawyers.
Other lawyers have also pointed out the role of legal aid cuts in the tragedy:
— Daphne Romney QC (@DaphneRomneyQC) June 14, 2017
And housing rights solicitor Meera Betab wrote on Facebook:
These are the sort of things housing solicitors used to help tenants with but with the drastic cuts in civil legal aid over years, tenants have very limited recourse to legal help before these matters become tragedies… Often tenants are unable to acess [sic] advice or help because of the dismantling of the civil legal aid system, which unlike the cuts to criminal legal aid have gone largely unreported by the media.
But beyond the BBC, there has been barely a mention of the impact of legal aid cuts on Grenfell’s residents in the media. In fact, swathes of our press have instead chosen to blame individual residents, residents as a whole or the EU.
Then, the Conservative-led Coalition government introduced legal aid cuts on steroids. In 2012, it obliterated civil legal aid for social welfare cases, including housing (except in limited circumstances). That left “thousands of the most vulnerable without essential legal advice and support”, according to Amnesty International. The aim? To save £350m per year. The result? People like the Grenfell residents could no longer get legal help.
Help at last
The Grenfell residents finally look set to get some legal help, as lawyers rush to offer assistance:
If residents of Grenfell Tower want legal help with compensation and responsibility many lawyers will be happy to help. For free. I will.
— Jo Maugham QC (@JolyonMaugham) June 15, 2017
But that is not enough.
It is down to government – both national and local – to take responsibility for the devastating facts: Grenfell’s residents raised concerns over a period of years. The council allegedly employed lawyers to try to silence them, presumably using taxpayers’ money. Thanks to legal aid cuts, Grenfell’s residents could not escalate their safety concerns. Now, we have seen loss of life on a devastating scale.
The Canary contacted both KCTMO and Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council for comment. KCTMO had not responded at the time of publication. A council spokesperson said:
We have heard a number of theories about the cause of the fire at Grenfell Tower. All of these will be thoroughly investigated as part of the formal investigation which has already begun.
You can listen to the BBC Radio Wales interview with Weatherby here:
This article was updated at 1820 on 16 June to include a quote from Meera Betab.
– If you’re a lawyer and you’re willing to help, contact the North Kensington Law Centre on 020 8969 7473.
– Donate to the Grenfell Tower Appeal.
– Join Justice for Grenfell outside the Department for Communities and Local Government at 6pm on 16 June.
Featured image via screengrab
We need your help to keep speaking the truth
Every story that you have come to us with; each injustice you have asked us to investigate; every campaign we have fought; each of your unheard voices we amplified; we do this for you. We are making a difference on your behalf.
Our fight is your fight. You’ve supported our collective struggle every time you gave us a like; and every time you shared our work across social media. Now we need you to support us with a monthly donation.
We have published nearly 2,000 articles and over 50 films in 2021. And we want to do this and more in 2022 but we don’t have enough money to go on at this pace. So, if you value our work and want us to continue then please join us and be part of The Canary family.
In return, you get:
* Advert free reading experience
* Quarterly group video call with the Editor-in-Chief
* Behind the scenes monthly e-newsletter
* 20% discount in our shop
Almost all of our spending goes to the people who make The Canary’s content. So your contribution directly supports our writers and enables us to continue to do what we do: speaking truth, powered by you. We have weathered many attempts to shut us down and silence our vital opposition to an increasingly fascist government and right-wing mainstream media.
With your help we can continue:
* Holding political and state power to account
* Advocating for the people the system marginalises
* Being a media outlet that upholds the highest standards
* Campaigning on the issues others won’t
* Putting your lives central to everything we do
We are a drop of truth in an ocean of deceit. But we can’t do this without your support. So please, can you help us continue the fight?