Lawyers offer services to Grenfell Tower fire victims as partners predict lengthy legal fallout

Lawyers are offering free legal services to victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, as partners predict litigation running into years following the disaster that has killed at least 17 people in west London this week.

Devereux Chambers tax QC Jolyon Maugham, who has said he will provide legal help to Grenfell residents free of charge, has called on housing, employment and welfare lawyers to offer their services to victims of the disaster. The 24-storey block, which contained 120 flats, reportedly housed between 400 and 600 people.

Maugham, speaking to Legal Week from north Kensington, said: “I am here now, it is both dispiriting and cheering. You get out of the tube and there is an acrid stench of burnt plastic and people wandering the streets in tears looking shell-shocked. But there are hundreds of people wanting to help, hundreds of people bringing donations of food and clothes. It is cheering that we have a society that has a desire to respond to awful events like this.

“I don’t think now is the time to point the finger, tempting though that is. What we need to be doing is making sure those who have survived the fire, but whose lives have been torn apart, have their imminent needs met.”

North Kensington Law Centre has offered to coordinate the legal response; however Maugham said it “shows every appearance of being deluged” and called for additional support in triaging legal assistance. Housing charity Shelter, which is working with magic circle firm Slaughter and May, is leading the legal response for housing issues.

“I would like the profession to think about how it coordinates its response to events like this going forward, so that in a sense we are not inventing the wheel every time,” he said. ”It can’t be beyond the wit of a largely wealthy profession like ours to have a rapid reaction unit to respond to events like these.”

The Evening Standard is leading a fundraising effort for victims, and yesterday reported that Allen & Overy (A&O) and Linklaters are among the biggest contributors so far, donating £10,000 and £5,000 respectively. Eversheds Sutherland and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer have also both donated £10,000 to the appeal, while Freshfields has also donated £5,000 to the emergency relief fund established by the Kensington and Chelsea foundation.

Linklaters corporate responsibility head Matt Sparkes said: “The scale of the public response has been very considerable in terms of money and goods – our contribution is in solidarity with that and also to complement what we know our people are doing. We know many of our lawyers and other staff are giving personally and we wanted to show that the firm was behind them.”

An A&O spokesperson said: “We are in discussion with other law firms about how we can further support those affected, for example through pro bono assistance on interim housing and rehousing, and immigration status. We are looking at providing a secondee to the North Kensington Law Centre, as well as other volunteers. Lots of A&O people are keen to help.”

Other firms responding to the crisis include Ashurst, which is currently raising money to donate to the fund, in addition to organising an office-wide collection of clothing and other urgently needed items for victims. Ashurst and Ropes & Gray have each seconded a pro bono manager to North Kensington Law Centre for the next week on behalf of all firms in the UK Collaborative Plan for Pro Bono, a group of 40 City law firms.

Felicity Kirk, who heads up Ropes & Gray’s international pro bono programme, said: “We are helping the team at the North Kensington Law Centre sift through all the offers of support they are receiving and identify how to best make use of both skilled and unskilled volunteers in the coming weeks. Many law firms are already on our list ready to provide whatever support is needed to the Centre and the community.”

Elsewhere, Norton Rose Fulbright is making a donation to the British Red Cross, and is collecting essential household goods, non-perishable food items and sleeping bags for those affected. Herbert Smith Freehills has donated £5,000 to the relief fund and its pro bono lawyers have offered to support local law centres.

The Law Society, which has established pro bono legal panels for the victims of the London Bridge and Manchester terror attacks, said it is currently looking at what it could do to help victims of the fire.

Law Society president Robert Bourns said: “The legal profession is again demonstrating huge willingness to help and many are already offering free legal advice to those whose lives have been utterly devastated. These people will face a different range of legal issues to those affected by terror attacks, and the number of people involved is of a completely different magnitude. We are therefore taking stock, reviewing infrastructure that exists to support victims and looking at what will be needed.”

Other lawyers who have offered to help victims so far also include One Pump Court human rights barrister Asma Nizami, who said on Twitter that she would be at the Clement James Centre, an educational charity in North Kensington, from 10am today to offer free legal advice to victims of the tragedy.

Prime Minister Theresa May yesterday ordered a full, judge-led public inquiry into the fire, and the Metropolitan Police have confirmed that they have opened a criminal investigation into the blaze.

Meanwhile, David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, has called for the prosecution of those found to be responsible for the blaze, describing the fire as “corporate manslaughter” and said “people must be held to account”.

Pinsent Masons health and safety partner Sean Elson commented: “This has the potential to be a watershed event. I expect a very deep and detailed investigation by the Met, in relation to whether or not there is any criminal aspects to this. This is likely to mean complex civil claims involving insurers and claimant lawyers for many years to come.”

CMS health and safety partner Lukas Rootman said: “When a fire occurs in London it is investigated by the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, and in the context of something of this magnitude, with the police to see if there are potential manslaughter issues involved. You would expect regulatory lawyers to be involved, those who deal with fire safety and health and safety regulations.”

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Photo credit: Natalie Oxford