Tenants denied legal voice at tower block inquest
Tenants in an identical nearby block to the one in which six people died in a fatal fire have lost their right to have legal representation to cross-examine witnesses at the inquest.
Six people, including three children, died after a faulty television started a blaze on the ninth floor of the Lakanal House tower block in Camberwell, south London, in July 2009. They were trapped on the 11th floor as the fire spread rapidly through the block.
Sceaux Gardens Tenants’ and Residents’ Association were given ‘properly interested person status’ for the ‘super inquest’ – with the six inquests to be held together – by previous coroner Mr Justice Thayne Forbes in March 2010.
The group represents about 900 people who live in the nearby identical block, Marie Curie House, who have spoken of their fears not knowing whether fire could spread through their homes as it did in Lakanal House.
But Mr Justice Forbes - who led the inquests into those murdered by Dr Harold Shipman – stepped down and coroner Judge Frances Kirkham has now written to the group saying: ‘I conclude that the factors in favour of the association’s maintaining PIP status are outweighed by those which weigh against this.’
She wrote: ‘While I understand entirely that the residents of other blocks, and of Marie Curie in particular, have very real concerns, I remind myself that I am not conducting an inquiry. My task is to conduct inquests into the sad deaths of six people in Lakanal House.’
The association can still tell counsel to the inquest, James Maxwell-Scott, their concerns to raise on their behalf during the inquest.
Dave Lewis, secretary of the Sceaux Gardens Tenants’ and Residents’ Association, said Judge Kirkham had said in December last year she would still share information given to ‘properly interested persons’ with the group.
‘We are disappointed but we’ve got to think about what we do. It’s just a question of how it pans out. We have no formal rights any more. We are hoping she will deliver [on her December promise].’
Mr Lewis said without the information the association would not be able to relay informed concerns to the coroner’s counsel.
MP for Camberwell Harriet Harman said she was ‘bitterly disappointed’. She had written to Judge Kirkham in February saying: ‘Because of its physical proximity and near-identical construction to Lakanal, it is especially important for the residents of Marie Curie House to know why the fire spread and what the lessons are that need to be learnt so they are sure they are safe.
‘During the inquest, residents will want to offer their views and ask questions and representatives of the tenants’ and residents’ association will need access to information which will be presented to interested parties.’
She also asked for the inquest to be held near the Marie Curie block so the residents could attend. ‘It is very important that they feel they are a part of this inquest and understand the process,’ Ms Harman wrote. ‘They live with the daily concern of whether their own homes are safe.’
The inquest is likely to be held at Lambeth Council’s town hall in Brixton and is due to start on 14 January 2013.