The UK Grenfell Tower blaze & Corporate Manslaughter

Prologue

“This is the richest borough in our country treating its citizens in this way and we should call it what it is. It is corporate manslaughter. And there should be arrests made; frankly, it is an outrage,”

Labour MP David Lammy, 15 June 2017, London

Watching the heartbreaking news of the Grenfell Tower fire disaster on BBC, Sky News and other national and international TV channels, from my Central London Apartment, immediately after the finishing Tarabeh prayer, I became shocked, surprised and speechless. On 17th June 2017, I visited the blazed tower in person. I could still smell of burning plastic whist viting the tower.

It is unbelievable even to think how residents caught in the blaze were burnt alive helplessly inside the tower, in front of London Fire Brigade, London Ambulance and other support agencies.  My heartfelt sincere condolences to all who have perished, to the injured, to those who are bereaved or are still searching for missing loved ones.

After returning to Central London residence, I again watched this heartbreaking news very carefully as it developed & found that there were reports of a strong smell of burning plastic, thought to be cheap white cladding that was installed on Grenfell Tower last year as part of a £10million refurbishment.

The local Action Group also warned that there were not enough entries and exits to cope with a catastrophic event. There was only entry and exit to the high-rise containing 120 homes.

Residents who escaped the towering inferno claimed fire alarms did not sound and they were told to “stay put” in their flats.

During the evacuation process, residents caught in the fire were screaming and some people were escaping using bedsheets as improvised rope ladders. The building has been gutted and the families left only with the bedclothes they were wearing when they were evacuated.

Experts at the University of Edinburgh opined that recent cladding works to the outside of the Tower used during the refurbishment work may have exacerbated the fire.

As a defender of human rights and fundamental freedoms, I strongly believe that if the alleged poor quality building materials, cheap white cladding used in the refurbishment and poor construction standards have played a part in this hideous and unforgivable event; then those involved in the process must be brought before justice under corporate manslaughter.

Therefore, in this article an attempt will be made to describe corporate manslaughter under the existing UK law and how liabilities could be established against those involved in the refurbishment of the Tower and the concerned authorities’ failure to take steps to remedy the safety concerns raised by the residents three years ago.

 Background

The 24-storey Grenfell Tower in Kensington, West London containing 120 homes was built in 1974; so would have needed to comply with strict new regulations which ensured buildings would not fall down in the event of a blast, or a major fire. However, it has emerged that an action group claimed their warnings of a “catastrophe” fell on “deaf ears” after highlighting safety concerns three years ago.

The fire broke out in this residential high-rise shortly before 1 am.

It is reported that the blaze in this tower started on one side of the block, before sweeping around the building and engulfing it in flames from the second to the top floor.

London Fire Brigade saying it was called at 12.54 am. Approximately forty fire engines containing more than 200 fire-fighters were called to the blaze in the early hours of Wednesday.

The search and retrieval of bodies could take weeks, as fire-fighters worked with other specialists to build structures inside the tower in order for a detailed search to be carried out.

Death tolls & unaccounted numbers

London Fire Brigade confirmed seventeen deaths, but that number is likely to rise further. Police also warned it would rise further during a painstaking search of the remains of the building.

Due to the fear that the tower might collapse, Fire Fighters were forced to stop looking for the dead on Thursday.

It is unlikely any more survivors will be recovered from the building. A ‘significant number’ of people are still unaccounted for. The leader of Kensington and Chelsea Borough Nick Paget-Brown said “several hundred” people would have been in the block when the fire broke out. A number of children and elderly people are missing,

Causes of fire

The real cause of the fire is still unknown. There are five theories speculated about the cause of fire. None of them are officially confirmed. Firstly, there could a gas explosion. Residents said refurbishment work had recently been carried out with work on the gas supply to the flats.

Secondly, fire could have caused from a faulty fridge. Witnesses described hearing one distressed resident apparently telling neighbours his faulty fridge caused the blaze.

Thirdly, blaze in the tower could have been caused by faulty wiring. One of the safety issues highlighted by the residents was faulty wiring who said a disaster cause by the problem was narrowly averted four years ago.

Fourthly, blaze in the tower could be also caused by the cheap cladding fitted on outskirts of the tower. Grenfell Tower was fitted with zinc rainscreen cladding and glazed curtain walling after a £10 million refurbishment. Experts have claimed this could have exacerbated the spread of the fire.

Fifthly, fire spread in the tower due to lack of sprinklers/exits. It is alleged that the Government has resisted calls to install sprinkler systems in high-rise blocks in the wake of the Lakanal House tragedy. The local Action Group also warned that there were not enough entries and exits to cope with a catastrophic event.

Whatever are the speculative reasons for the disaster, an action group of Grenfell residents said the residents have previously raised concerns about their safety concerns about the block. However their warnings fell on “deaf ears” despite the fact that warnings were given several times that catastrophic’ event could happen.

Experts at the University of Edinburgh opined that recent cladding works to the outside of the Tower used during the refurbishment work may have exacerbated the fire.

Corporate manslaughter

The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 creates a means of accountability for deaths caused by very serious management failings.

Corporate manslaughter is a criminal offence in English law. It is an act of homicide committed by a company or organisation. In general, in English criminal law, a juristic person is in the same position as a natural person, and may be convicted for committing many offences.

Prosecution of a business

Under the 2007 Act, a business can be prosecuted for the offence of corporate manslaughter if the way in which its activities are managed causes a death through a gross breach of duty of care to the deceased. A large part of the breach must have been in the way activities were managed or organised by senior management.

Owners & Senior Managers

Although owners and senior managers of businesses cannot personally be prosecuted for corporate manslaughter, under the 2007 Act, they can be prosecuted for other offences related to failures in health and safety management.

These include gross negligence manslaughter and health and safety offences. The corporate manslaughter law does not change this and prosecutions against individuals will continue to be taken where there is enough evidence and it is in the public interest.

Individual directors or members of staff could also be called as witnesses in a criminal trial for corporate manslaughter.

 The corporate manslaughter test

In the UK, Juries will consider how activities that led to the fatal accident were managed throughout your business. This includes any systems and processes for managing health and safety, how these were operated in practice and the failures that occurred.

Most of the failure must have been caused by senior management, i.e. the people in your business who make the big decisions. This includes both centralised, headquarters functions as well as those in operational management roles.

Duty of care

Under the existing law, the business has duties of care that it should meet, for example: the systems of work and equipment used by employees, the condition of worksites and other premises, products or services supplied to customers. The corporate manslaughter legislation does not create new duties. The law is based on existing health and safety rules.

 Gross Breach

To be in ‘gross’ breach of a duty of care, your business’ actions must have fallen far below what could have been reasonably expected in the circumstances. Juries will also take into account any health and safety breaches by the organisation – and how serious they were.

 Complying with the legislation

All employers must already comply with health and safety legislation. The Corporate Manslaughter Act does not affect those requirements. However, the introduction of the criminal offence of corporate manslaughter should encourage you to manage health and safety properly.

If we compare the above incident in the light of the allegations made by the residents of the Tower, and if the way in which their activities are managed causes deaths of the residents caught in the fire through a gross breach of duty of care to the deceased; then the company which refurbished the Tower including concerned authorities who ignored the warnings of a “catastrophe” highlighting safety concerns three years ago; could be prosecuted for the offence of corporate manslaughter A large part of the breach must have been in the way activities were managed or organised by senior management

Epilogue

We don’t want the repeat of this incident any more in the modern Britain, one of the richest countries of the world. Criminal Investigations should be commenced immediately into the Grenfell Tower fire as it has already emerged that cladding panels similar to those likely to have been used on the 24-storey building have been widely prohibited on tall buildings in the US since 2012. The Queen issued a statement offering her “thoughts and prayers” to the families who had lost loved ones. The Prime Minister Theresa May has also set up a public inquiry into the fire. The Labour MP David Lammy has called the Grenfell Tower blaze “corporate manslaughter”. If any company or authority is found in the gross breach of duty of care to the deceased should be arrested immediately, prosecuted under “corporate manslaughter” and brought before justice with full force of law.

*By – Barrister M. A. Muid Khan

* (The writer is a Barrister of the Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn, Chartered Legal Executive Lawyer of CILEX. He was declared as the Best Human Rights Lawyer of England & Wales by Bar Council, Law Society & CILEX. He can be contacted at barristermuid@yahoo.co.uk ).

 

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