CBA Monday Message – 19.06.17
Francis FitzGibbon QC
The horror of the Grenfell Tower fire eclipses other concerns this week and I hope you will permit me to share some early thoughts about it.
We take pride in British public institutions being free of corruption. According to Transparency International, the UK is tenth equal least corrupt country in the world, out of 176, with Germany and Luxembourg. TI regards unexplained wealth as a major cause of corruption; by an amendment to Section 362 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 20o2 made by Section 1 of the Criminal Finances Act 2017, the High Court can now issue ‘unexplained wealth orders’ – which require people to explain how they came by their wealth.
In the legal world, it is inconceivable that anyone could buy a judge; attempts to buy juries always come unstuck.
The Grenfell Tower disaster, however, may reveal a form of corruption that has crept into institutions by stealth, or inadvertence, at a deep level. Let’s assume that everyone concerned with the refurbishment and maintenance of the building did exactly what the regulations and their contracts required and no one has broken the law. But where are the lines of accountability when a public authority has outsourced its landlord functions to a private body? Where does the buck stop? Who is responsible for balancing spending decisions against safety? Who makes money out of it? Why are recommendations by a Coroner not acted on? It seems to me that corruption is the right term for a state of affairs which results in the deaths of poor people when a publicly owned building bursts uncontrollably into flames. A system that allows it to occur is corrupt.
Some lawyers have offered their services to the survivors for free, and are to be congratulated for it. But they should not have to do so: the ability of poor people to enforce their legal rights without being shown charity should be non-negotiable in a society that claims to stand for the rule of law.
As some one else said this week, a poor public service that only serves the poor is a disgrace. If litigation follows the disaster, the institutions and corporations will get the best lawyers they can find, as is their perfect right. I recall Michael Gove’s words shortly after he became Lord Chancellor in 2015, when he said
There are 2 nations in our justice system at present. On the one hand, the wealthy, international class who can, for example, choose to settle cases in London with the gold standard of British justice. And then everyone else, who has to put up with a creaking, outdated system to see justice done in their own lives. The people who are let down most badly by our justice system are those who must take part in it through no fault or desire of their own…
There are really three nations: those who can pay for the best lawyers, the diminishing number who can get legal aid and a decent lawyer to act for them, and those who cannot get representation at all.