The recent fire in Grenfell Tower in West London provoked a lot of comments in the media. A thought should be shared with those affected, as losing a loved one must be the most unsettling of events that anyone can suffer. This impact on individuals will remain for the rest of their lives, long after the public outcry has passed and is without measure the most significant impact of this fire.
For the moment a lot is written about the events, its causes and what the fallout might be. This will be a complex and protracted investigation. Initially the rescue operation will give way to a recovery operation. This will then be followed by a lengthy investigation. A lot of time may pass before justice is done. At the moment it is premature to judge who might have done things wrong and what the extent of such wrongdoing may be. What is clear though is that the investigation will look at failures that can be attributed to the various duty holders that will be involved. How far below the required standard people and organisations fall will ultimately dictate whether they are guilty of fire safety offences or corporate manslaughter offences or both. If individuals are to be held accountable, then there may well be gross negligence manslaughter convictions as well.
It is normal that an inquest is held where there is a loss of life following a fire. This may or may not be followed by a prosecution. Where a prosecution follows this is likely to be for fire safety offences, which are prosecuted by the appropriate Fire Authority (in this case London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority). The magnitude of this incident may well lead to police involvement and a corporate manslaughter investigation. The corporate manslaughter investigation will focus on the ingredients of the offence, which in broad terms look at whether the way in which an organisation organised its activities caused someone’s death. It will be considered whether an organisation fell far below the required standards for fire safety and whether the failures can be attributed to senior management.
A further layer of complexity is the public inquiry that has been ordered by the Prime Minister. The inquest will focus on answering key questions such as: Who died?; Where did the person die?; When did the person die; How did the person die? The scope of the public inquiry will be fixed, but is likely to be more wide ranging. It will no doubt include a focus on fire prevention and defences.
How long the whole process will take is anyone’s guess and what the outcome will be is uncertain. What is clear though is that people will have to live with the loss that they suffered for the rest of their lives and if organisations and individuals are charged and convicted, then the fines will be substantial and custodial sentences a real possibility. The public inquiry may also have far reaching consequences on how fire safety is approached and how the impact of building modifications and maintenance are assessed.
About the author:
Lukas Rootman is a partner at CMS Cameron McKenna Nabarro Olswang LLP. He specialises in fire safety and health and safety regulation. He regularly advise clients on compliance and following serious incidents.