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Grenfell Tower Fire: Inquiry or Inquest?

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Last week’s catastrophic fire at Grenfell tower has left the country overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster, and determined to uncover what led to such a calamity. Questions have been raised regarding the standard of fire safety regulations, particularly in light of the proposed amendment to the Government’s Housing and Planning Bill which was rejected in the Commons last year. 312 MPs voted against including a provision that housing must be ‘fit for human habitation’. There are also questions regarding the local council’s failure to respond to residents’ ongoing concerns, as they foresaw the potential consequences of their block’s poor fire safety standards.

This incident raises crucial questions as to the appropriate method of investigating such a catastrophe. The Government announced last Thursday that there would be a full public inquiry into the fire. However, there has been an overwhelming response from lawyers, journalists, and the general public, that an inquiry would be insufficient. Instead, there have been calls for an inquest into the incident.

An inquest differs to an inquiry in that it is conducted by a coroner who acts independently to investigate sudden or unexplained fatalities, and the case would be heard by a jury.  It has been suggested that an inquest would prevent narratives from being suppressed that might suggest inadequacies in regulation, and ensures close scrutiny of the various public bodies which played a role in the maintenance of the Tower. Following the Lakanal House fire in 2009, an inquest was conducted which found that Southwark Council had failed to adhere to fire safety standards. Whilst the Council was exonerated of corporate manslaughter charges, they were fined £570,000 for breaching fire safety regulations.

An inquiry on the other hand, is an investigation launched by government ministers. Therefore,  if there are concerns that the government itself may have acted wrongfully, citizens may worry that the report will not be sufficiently rigorous. Moreover, Inquiries are lengthy. The findings of the Chilcott Inquiry, which was launched in 2009 to investigate the legitimacy of Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war, were released in 2016, seven years after the fact.

In the wake of an incident such as this, it is of utmost importance that there is respect for the victims and their friends and families, and that the most meaningful method of investigation available. It is only right that the events which led to such a tragedy are established with impartiality, and in a timely fashion. Reflecting on the Hillsborough disaster, the government must ensure that justice is served.