‘Do they understand us?’ Grenfell victims’ lawyers attack inquiry for lack of diversity

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By CJ McKinney on

Black QC’s warning of ‘injustice’ goes viral

Leslie Thomas QC

Lawyers representing victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, in which 71 people were killed, have mounted a sustained attack on the perceived lack of ethnic diversity in the official inquiry into the disaster.

A chorus of leading human rights barristers told the inquiry’s chairman that a more diverse set of people should be appointed to help him run the probe.

Michael Mansfield QC — once rather bizarrely called the “Johnny Depp of the legal world” — told Sir Martin Moore-Bick that “the decision-making process cannot be left to one person.” He continued:

“It should be reflective of the community and, to some extent, the public at large for there to be at the end of the day confidence in the findings. You yourself cannot be expected to reflect the diversity in one person. No one person on earth could do that.”

Danny Friedman QC of Matrix Chambers backed Mansfield’s stance, saying that “extending the 20 diversity and inclusiveness of the panel… would have a paradigm-shifting positive consequence in terms of confidence”. Pete Weatherby QC of Garden Court Chambers and solicitor-advocate Kate Ellis of Imran Khan and Partners also piled in.

Grenfell Tower in West London

It would not have escaped anybody’s notice that all those lawyers, like the chairman, are white, whereas many of the people affected by the fire are from ethnic minorities. This point was picked up by Leslie Thomas QC. He told Moore-Bick: “Look at the lawyers. Look at the lawyers who represent predominantly, because of the way you’ve divided us, the corporate core participants.” The silk continued:

“Even to an extent, look at those of us who represent the victim core participants. Fairly homogenised group, wouldn’t you agree? Apart from the odd exception here and there. What must [the victims] be thinking in terms of: ‘Are we going to get justice? Do they understand us?'”

Querying whether the set-up would pass the “smell test” for victims, Thomas argued that victims would be asking:

“Do they understand us? Do they speak our language? Do they know anything about social housing? How many of them have lived in a tower block or on a council estate or in social housing? That affects confidence. Confidence or lack of it affects participation. And a lack of participation from the very people who matter will affect justice. And a lack of justice is injustice.”

A Channel 4 video capturing Thomas’s powerful submissions already has over 100,000 views on Facebook and 60,000 on Twitter. The top QC, joint head of chambers at leading human rights set Garden Court, has previously likened his advocacy style to Mike Tyson in the boxing ring.

The investigation, set up under the Inquiries Act 2005, is naturally enough a legalistic exercise. There were 23 counsel and solicitor teams present at yesterday’s hearing, with Moore-Bick having to apologise that there wasn’t enough space in the Holborn Bars function room to fit all the lawyers in.

Another Garden Court barrister representing victims, Allison Munroe, emphasised that “the actual legal process itself can be quite dehumanising and traumatising”, arguing that diversity in the inquiry is “central and important because it actually adds value to the inquiry. It adds value to the decision-making process. It adds value to the actual legal process.”

Moore-Bick doesn’t actually have the power to add anyone to run the inquiry with him. As the lawyers acknowledged, that’s down to the government using Inquiries Act powers — making this fundamentally a political rather than a legal row. Labour has already weighed in, calling for “a more diverse advisory panel to support the judge Moore-Bick”.

The inquiry continues today and is expected to put out an interim report by autumn 2018. By then inquiry lawyers under Richard Millett QC expect to review a whopping 270,000 documents at a rate of 20,000 a week.

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