aul Ridge is at the sharp end of the legal battle to win justice for the many victims of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. He is acting for dozens of families of those who lost their lives in the blaze, and for families who lost their homes.
The Government’s latest offer to the unfortunate homeowners stuck in unsellable, unsafe flats is the Building Safety Bill, currently going through Parliament. When it becomes law it will allow them a 15-year window in which to take legal action against those they consider responsible for their predicament. The current time limit is six years.
But, time-frame aside, the practical realities of fighting the cladding scandal in the courts are daunting even though all the homeowners want is to live in safe homes without being bankrupted in the process.
The stress is all consuming, all the time. Not having assurance that the buildings we live in are fire safe is mentally taxing.
“Leaseholders are the most innocent parties in this,” says Ridge. “They did not design [the buildings] they did not commission [the buildings], yet they are the cash cows who are supposed to pay for it.”
Kyle Taylor bought his first home back in 2014. Priced off the property ladder, he chose to go down the shared ownership route and paid £121,250 for a quarter share in a two-bedroom flat at The Exchange in Bermondsey.
After Grenfell, Taylor and his neighbours learnt their homes were also clad in flammable ACM panels. The relatively good news was that two buildings at the site were more than 18 metres tall and the developer, Notting Hill Housing (now Notting Hill Genesis; NHG), agreed to remove and replace the panels.
However, another three buildings are low-rise and The Exchange residents say the association declined to do the same at those homes, which are still clad in the combustible panels.
Residents at The Exchange are a tight-knit bunch — they say a litany of structural problems with their homes, unrelated to fire safety, encouraged them to form a residents’ association almost as soon as they moved in to press for improvements.
This meant that by the time they concluded their homes could be death-traps, they were united in their general distrust of NHG.
“Leaving ACM on some of the buildings seems both unsafe and unfair,” says Taylor, who works in digital rights advocacy.
By 2019, the residents were tired of attempting to persuade NHG to step up. A group of about 50 households decided to club together and hire law firm Bindmans to try to force the issue. What they want is for the cladding to be removed from all the buildings on the site.
They want assurances that other potential fire hazards across the site — such as insulation — are safe, and that fire breaks, fire doors and compartmentalisation are up to scratch.
The residents are also claiming compensation. Some say sales fall through thanks to the crisis, others highlight lost rental income and they have not been able to remortgage their homes for several years to take advantage of rock-bottom rates.
“Because the Government has refused to protect residents, we have been put in a position where the stress is so overwhelming that you do not have any option but to take legal action,” says Taylor.
“It is all consuming, all the time. Not having the assurance that the buildings that we live in are fire safe is so mentally taxing.”
Eighteen months after The Exchange residents decided to go the legal route no solution has been reached —although the simple fact that they have lawyers on side is a comfort. “It feels proactive, like we are doing something. And it really feels like the only option that is left to us,” says Taylor. “Yes, we are having to pay, and that is stressful. But it feels very necessary. It does give peace of mind to know we are doing everything we can”.
A spokesman for Notting Hill Genesis said the association is committed to making sure all its buildings meet up to date government safety regulations and is prioritising works to taller buildings.
“We... remain committed to removing the ACM cladding on the three smaller blocks and are exploring the best way to do this,” the spokesman added.
“We understand the impact of building safety works are stressful for all residents and we will continue to work with them and keep them informed of our progress.”
This sort of time frame is par for the course, says Ridge. Leaseholders worried about their flats first began approaching him in 2018 and while some cases are now “well on the way to resolution”, none has been concluded.
The cost of legal action varies wildly and legal aid is not available to cladding victims, so leaseholders must either reach into their pockets — and the costs of a full-blown court case could run to several hundred thousand pounds — or try and find a “no win, no fee” law firm.
This is another tripwire because while some firms offering this option are excellent, others are simply ambulance chasers without the expertise to handle these technically complex cases. Telling the difference is hard. Some victims will inevitably not get the level of legal representation they need to take on large companies with expensive legal teams.
Making matters worse, Ridge says that many developers and freeholders are proving reluctant to hand over data about buildings or allow inspections, which drags cases out (and hikes costs). “They can be very slow at sharing reports,” says Ridge. “They try and hide. The response is very mixed. It is a case of holding their feet to the fire.”
The legal battle for justice is at its early stages but there are several court cases brewing.
In January a group of residents at Fuller Court in Hornsey issued a £2.2 million High Court claim for fire safety repairs against the National House Building Council (NHBC), which provided a warranty for their building.
Residents at New Capital Quay, Greenwich, won a partial victory in their legal struggle in 2018 when the NHBC agreed to pay just under £6 million to remove cladding from 1,000 or so homes at the site.
However earlier this year, New Capital Quay’s developer, Galliard Homes, attempted to block a High Court compensation claim lodged by residents. Residents also claim that the works at New Capital Quay, completed in May, might still not comply with building regulations.
A spokesman for Galliard said that the 11 buildings at the site have now passed fire safety inspections. Mrs Justice O’Farrell gave the residents more time to substantiate their claims before another hearing is set.
Ridge thinks that the Government must force developers to take responsibility for making buildings safe. He also wants to see the firms that have sold flammable cladding and insulation to pay their share.
A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government said: “Freeholders are responsible for ensuring their buildings are safe and we expect them to meet the costs of necessary remediation without passing them on to leaseholders.”
The Government has set aside £5 billion to replace cladding in the highest risk buildings but said new rules on legal action would increase the time leaseholders had to take action against shoddy work.