Any manslaughter prosecutions in relation to last year's Grenfell Tower fire could be challenged on the grounds of prejudice because of intense public scrutiny, a solicitor involved in prosecutions following the 2005 Buncefield explosion has suggested.
Jon Cooper, a partner at Womble Bond Dickinson in Plymouth, told a Lawyers in Local Government weekend school that the 'first real test of corporate manslaughter' could emerge following the tragedy in West London last June. The Metropolitan Police, in November, said 71 people have been formally identified, having died following the fire. The offence of corporate manslaughter was introduced under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007, which came into force in April 2008.
Cooper, who is involved in the Grenfell Tower inquiry, advised on the investigation into the Buncefield Oil Terminal explosion in 2005 and acted in the competent authority's successful prosecutions under the Health and Safety Act.
He told local government lawyers that there are numerous sites on social media with commentary on information, some of it 'nothing more than speculation', some of it 'quite detailed'. Cooper said: 'If all the evidence is aired in the public domain, will defendants, if there are defendants in due course, be able to have a fair trial? It's an issue we had in the Buncefield exposure which I prosecuted. There was an enormous amount of media interest and comment. They pale into insignificance compared to Grenfell within this aspect. There are likely to be challenges to any criminal prosecutions on that basis.'
The Grenfell Tower inquiry is due to hold a procedural hearing next week to review the progress of the inquiry's first phase and finalise the timeframe for evidential hearings, which are due to begin no later than 4 June. The inquiry has, so far, granted 521 'core participants' applications: 495 are survivors and neighbouring residents; 26 are businesses, and local and national government bodies.
This article was amended on 13 March in relation to the number of people who died following the fire at Grenfell Tower.