Bereaved family members and survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire will begin their civil case against more than a dozen defendants with a procedural hearing at the High Court in London today.
The case is listed for a ‘case management conference’ and is being brought on behalf of more than 800 bereaved and survivors, as well as firefighters and police officers who have joined the action.
The defendants include the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC), which was the landlord of Grenfell Tower; Rydon, the lead contractor for the refurbishment; and Arconic and Celotex, the companies that supplied the combustible cladding panels and insulation respectively.
Architecture firm Studio E; cladding sub-contractor Harley Facades; risk assessor Carl Stokes; fire engineers Exova; and building manager Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) are also listed as defendants.
The London Fire Commissioner and the Metropolitan Police are also listed as defendants, as they are facing claims from their employees, who were left traumatised by the events of the night.
The case is likely to be paused following the hearings to allow negotiations between the parties about potential settlement.
These discussions will take place via an alternative dispute resolution service to be facilitated by retired Court of Appeal judge Sir Stephen Irwin.
The hearing today, before senior master Barbara Fontaine, will consider whether to stay the proceedings to allow this process to continue.
A statement from law firm Bindmans, which is leading the action alongside several other law firms, said: “Grenfell victims last year issued High Court proceedings against a number of defendants. The hearing on Wednesday is a case management conference, a hearing at which the court will consider how these claims will proceed.
“Most of the parties have agreed a hold (‘a stay’) of these proceedings in order to allow discussion between the parties about how these claims can be appropriately resolved.”
The claims come amid the mammoth public inquiry into the blaze, which is not likely to finish oral evidence until at least spring next year, with a final report not expected until late 2022 at the earliest.
Police investigations are on hold until the publication of this report, with the slow pace of justice frustrating many of the victims.
A previous attempt at civil action in US courts – where Arconic and Celotex’s parent companies are based – was thrown out, with the judge ordering the case to be heard in the UK.
The inquiry into the fire has recently been hearing evidence about serious failures by KCTMO and RBKC in the lead-up to the fire – including leaving dozens of fire doors without necessary self-closers despite specific warnings from the London Fire Brigade.
Broken self-closers are thought to have been a major cause of the spread of smoke on the night of the fire.
The inquiry has previously also heard that Arconic did not withdraw its combustible aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding from the market, despite internal testing showing a devastating fire performance when bent into ‘cassette’ shape from as early as 2004.
The panels have already been identified as the “primary cause” of the rapid vertical fire spread on the night of the fire.
There has also been evidence that Celotex, which made the majority of the insulation for the tower, concealed the presence of fire-resisting boards in a crucial fire test involving its product.
One of its former employees who led this process has admitted under questioning that doing so was “dishonest” and a “fraud on the market”.
The inquiry has also heard that Rydon, as lead contractor, was involved in the decision to switch non-combustible zinc panels for ACM to save money. The inquiry also heard that the firm understated the savings that could be made through this switch and sought to “pocket the difference” in order to boost its profit margin.
Harley Facades produced the detailed designs for the cladding system, with one of its employees writing “as we all know the ACM will be gone rather quickly in a fire” in an email in 2015. He has claimed that this was simply a reference to the panels falling off the building.
Compensation for cases such as this in UK courts is unusually low – with payments for bereavement set at a mere £15,000, compared to sums running into the millions in other countries.
A spokesperson for RBKC said: “A number of participants, including the council, are taking part in discussions with solicitors representing the majority of the bereaved, survivors and relatives to design an alternative dispute resolution process. At a hearing this week, the High Court will consider whether to stay the proceedings to allow this process to continue.”
A spokesperson for Arconic added: “Arconic confirms that, along with a number of other parties, it is fully participating in the High Court procedural hearing in respect of the BSR and Emergency Responder claims regarding the Grenfell Tower fire. All of the claims are at a very early stage of proceedings, so the hearing is only procedural in nature.”
A number of the other defendants were contacted for comment.
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