A gap in the law left the Grenfell Tower residents with no legal redress before disaster struck, housing law specialists have claimed. Seven months before the blaze at the 24-story tower block in North Kensington on Wednesday morning, which police fear may have killed as many as 100 people and injured scores, a blog post by the Grenfell Action Group foresaw the disaster.
The chillingly prescient post said:
‘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, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders.
Unfortunately, the Grenfell Action Group have reached the conclusion that only an incident that results in serious loss of life of KCTMO residents will allow the external scrutiny to occur that will shine a light on the practices that characterise the malign governance of this non-functioning organisation.’
The building is managed by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) on behalf of the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and had recently undergone a £10m refurbishment.
While the cause of the fire is not yet known, residents had repeatedly raised concerns about the safety of the building.
Pilgrim Tucker, a west London resident who worked with the Grenfell Tower residents, told the BBC Two programme Newsnight: ‘These are ordinary residents. They are not the Camerons. They can’t afford lawyers. They tried to get lawyers, but because of the legal aid cuts, they couldn’t.’
But housing lawyers have claimed it is not the legal aid cuts that left residents unable to take action, but the law itself.
Sara Stephens, a housing partner at London firm Anthony Gold and member of the executive committee of the Housing Law Practitioners Association (HLPA), said: ‘There is a massive lacuna in housing law that leaves tenants with no pre-emptive remedy other than in cases of disrepair. There is a complete lack of civil remedy until something goes wrong, at which point tenants can take negligence claims.’
She said: ‘I am worried that this message is getting lost because people are understandably focusing on the absence of legal aid in housing cases.
‘I can’t see any way that legal aid could have helped in this case – there was nothing legally that the residents could have done, except start a private prosecution alleging a failure to comply with fire regulations, which would have been prohibitively expensive.’
The Landlord and Tennant Act 1985, section 11 enables residents to take action where a property has fallen into disrepair. But, said Stephens, the section is very narrow and only applies where buildings have deteriorated and are in a state of disrepair.
‘There should be some way for residents to be able to seek redress when a landlords fails to take action that is required,’ she said.
In 2015 Labour MP Karen Buck introduced a private members bill – The Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill – which would have required landlords to keep properties in a state fit for human habitation. It was talked out by Conservative MPs. But Stephens said that bill would not have helped the Grenfell Tower residents.
Simon Marciniak, HLPA chairman, said: ‘It appears incongruous for there be no pre-emptive remedy, but there was nothing the residents could have done until something went wrong’.
But David Foster, a housing community legal aid lawyer at London firm Foster & Foster, disagreed suggesting that media reports about the condition of the tower block indicate that a thorough surveyor’s report may have found actionable disrepair.
Alternatively, he suggested the residents may have been able to use the Human Rights Act, to make a damages claim for breach of article 2 (right to life) and 8 (right to respect for private and family life).
The real issue, added Stephens, is the fact that the recommendations of the inquest made following the blaze at Lakanal House in Camberwell in 2009, which killed six people, have not been implemented.
A statement on the website of the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea 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’.
The prime minister has announced that there will be a full judge-lead public inquiry into the disaster, and the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, called for legal aid to ensure those affected are legally represented and have their voices heard.
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