On Wednesday 14th June, a housing block engulfed in flames and blackened by charred bricks became a flaming beacon for social injustice. One of the many questions in need of urgent address is whether the current law denied the residents of Grenfell Tower proper access to justice.
Legal aid cuts
In April 2013, the legal aid budget was cut significantly leaving 650,000 people no longer able to access the justice system. In an attempt by the Minister of Justice to shave £350 million from the budget, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012 was introduced implementing significant funding cuts. Most relevantly, public funding for housing was turned off, which meant that legal aid would only be available for matters of housing law under ‘exceptional circumstances’.
Reports have emerged that residents of the tower on two separate occasions raised concerns about the safety of the building, but were unable to access legal aid and subsequently the representation that they needed. The problem was rooted in the fact that a legal aid claim will only arise when a property is in ‘disrepair’. The installation of unsafe cladding materials and a lack of fire extinguishers would not fall within this scope under the new reform. Without legal aid, the residents simply could not afford the proper representation they required.
Lack of pre-emptive options
It also must be asked whether current housing law provides tenants with access to adequate remedies, whether or not they have access to legal aid. The law should equip tenants with the ability to compel their landlord to take action when they feel the standards of health and safety, including in relation to fire safety, become unacceptable.
It is however questionable whether the current legal avenues open to tenants allowing them to take pre-emptive action, are sufficient. A brief exploration of some of the existing legal paths, demonstrates the lack of viable options. These include:
- An action for disrepair under the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985, allowing tenants to take action against their landlord for housing disrepair. As mentioned above, for Grenfell Tower residents, it is questionable whether the issue of fire safety and cladding of the building would have fallen into the definition of disrepair under the Act;
- A claim for negligence against the landlord; such a cause of action will arise only after the event, and would therefore be ineffective in preventing the tragedy witnessed at Grenfell Tower as the damage would have already been done;
- A claim for statutory nuisance under the Environment Protection Act 1990. Under this Act, the local authority must serve an abatement notice on any premises qualifying as a ‘statutory nuisance’, setting out a time by which the nuisance should be remedied. However, this cause of action would again have been ineffective for the Grenfell Tower residents, as in their case, the local authority was the landlord, and therefore cannot take action against themselves. The only option potentially open to the residents was a private prosecution, which would have been costly, and for which legal aid would not have been available;
- Via the Housing Health and Safety Rating System 2004, which imposes a duty on local authorities to investigate complaints in relation to potential hazards within properties. The difficulty with this option for local authority tenants is that it is not effective against local authority landlords, with tenants left with no ability to enforce for themselves other than through the expensive avenue of judicial review.
Repercussions for Manchester
Reactions of grief and anger have been voiced by not only the affected community, but also by the wider community as residents in similarly constructed housing all around Britain justifiably raise concerns about their safety.
Lucy Powell, Labour’s MP for Manchester Central has expressed concerns about housing safety in Manchester and has called for tighter safety regulations in an interview with the Manchester Evening News. She amongst others, have raised concerns that all high-rise buildings should be reviewed, and not just council flats.
‘We shouldn’t just be focusing on former council blocks, because in Manchester – particularly in the city centre – we have had a huge increase in the number of high rise blocks,’ she said.
However, steps have already been taken in Greater Manchester to assuage the community’s unrest. Mayor of Manchester Andy Burnham has set up a scheme headed by Paul Dennett (Mayor of Salford) in which every high-rise building above 6 stories will be reviewed, providing residents reassurance about fire safety standards.
On 23rd June, the Mayor of Salford also announced that cladding used on nine different high-rise blocks in Salford that were a similar material to the ones used to insulate Grenfell Tower would be removed.
Looking at the law
In spite of this positive action, the fact remains that for residents of high rise blocks in Manchester, and throughout the United Kingdom, the Grenfell Tower tragedy has flagged many worrying issues.
One such issue is the urgent need to look very closely at possible reform of the law, which in its current state demonstrably leaves gaping holes in which tenants are left with little or no ability to bring their landlords to account before, and not after, a tragic event.
It is vital that the law helps tenants to feel safe in their own homes; in its current state, the lack of proper access to justice leaves them vulnerable.
Eimear McCartan is a Northern Irish born solicitor, working in-house for Swinton Group. She has been qualified as a solicitor for six years, working in both private practice and in-house. Sam Blewitt is law student beginning his second year of study at Manchester Metropolitan University in September.