Grenfell inquiry may “empty chair” key witnesses

11th January 2021

Grenfell inquiry may “empty chair” key witnesses

Nyree Applegarth, partner in the Dispute Resolution and Litigation team at Higgs & Sons, looks at an notable development in the Grenfell Tower inquiry.

I read with interest an article this week about how the Grenfell Tower inquiry may “empty chair” key witnesses from the company that supplied the building’s cladding if they maintain their refusal to give evidence.

I have long held a deep-seated interest in the Grenfell inquiry having received a number of instructions after the fatal fire from clients who were advised that their buildings are also clad in unsafe materials. Many have sought advice about whether they must pay for the repairs themselves, or whether the builder is liable.

This latest development in the inquiry is very interesting from a legal standpoint. It appears that three people who either work or worked for the multinational Arconic company are claiming they are banned by French law from testifying at the public inquiry. It was Arconic which supplied the cladding that has been identified at the inquiry as one of the key reasons the fire spread so rapidly.

Though the company is based in the USA, the witnesses live in France or Germany and they maintain that the rarely used 1968 French Blocking Statute prevents them from giving evidence to a foreign tribunal.

It’s been questioned how valid that argument is though, given there has been one successful prosecution under that law in half a century.

The QC acting for the inquiry has urged the witnesses to “do the right thing” and indicated that, if necessary, the inquiry will proceed in any event. If the witnesses refuse to attend in person then the tribunal will still present the relevant evidence and the questions that the witnesses would have been asked if they had been there in person.

The UK Government has even waded in, with Stephen Greenhalgh, the building safety minister, telling the former and current employees to stop hiding behind an arcane French law.

Understandably, the families of those lost in Grenfell are not happy. Grenfell United, the survivors and families group, has said “there is no way Arconic staff should be dictating terms about what they are asked or not asked”.

It will be fascinating to see whether or not the trio are pressured into giving evidence – but we will have to wait for now as the inquiry, which had to be adjourned in December because of Covid-19, has been temporarily suspended due to the latest lockdown restrictions.




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