NEWS
26/07/2017 12:47 BST | Updated 26/07/2017 17:28 BST

Diane Abbott Criticises 'Ambulance Chasing' Lawyers Amid Grenfell Tragedy

Diane Abbott has hit out at "ambulance chasing" lawyers over allegations survivors of the Grenfell Tower blaze are being hounded about legal representation. 

In an email sent to legal associations and seen by the Press Association, the shadow home secretary claimed her office had received numerous complaints about the behaviour of some law firms. 

She said they had reported feeling "intimidated" into signing up for specific representation "on the premise that success depends on them all (a group of survivors) instructing one legal professional and/or firm". 

Many of those touched by the tragedy are in the process of preparing legal teams for the forthcoming public inquiry into the deadly fire.

Earlier this month, law firm Leigh Day suspended two paralegals after a poster was put up offering legal support to those affected, with an email address different from their work contact details. 

But the Labour MP claimed such episodes had since continued, and copied organisations working with residents into her email in the hopes any others who have felt pressurised come forward.

She wrote in the email, addressed primarily to the Law Society and Bar Council, that she did not wish to make accusations, but said: "Whilst at this stage it is not clear on which matters these individuals have been advised that they need legal representation, it is evident that legal representation will be required at some point and to this end, it is entirely for those affected by this tragedy to instruct the legal professional of their choice without being coerced into instructing firms who are clearly misleading people whilst they are extremely vulnerable. 

"I am sure that we all agree that this type of behaviour 'ambulance chasing' is disgraceful and should not be tolerated in any circumstance. 

"We are aware that two paralegals have been suspended following such allegations and I had initially believed that this was the end of the matter, however complaints have persisted and I offered to send this letter in an attempt to ensure that those affected by this have support and a voice where their concerns are raised at the highest level." 

She called for the "relevant authorities" to explain to survivors their legal rights, how to make a complaint about inappropriate action and what to do if they are concerned about a document they have signed.

A spokeswoman for the MP later confirmed they had yet to establish exactly which firms were guilty of such practice as many survivors were concerned about naming them. 

Her intervention came as tensions continued to run high over the shape of the independent probe. 

Sir Martin Moore-Bick, the retired Court of Appeal judge leading the process, was told repeatedly during a heated public consultation meeting on Tuesday that he lacked the confidence of the community.

Survivors and residents applauded as one member of the public told Sir Martin Moore-Bick he did not think he would do them justice in the public investigation. 

The retired judge invited contributions from those affected by the deadly blaze as he hosted a second consultation meeting to give residents their say on what they want the investigation to cover.

But he faced calls to resign as those in the room informed his panel that he was not representative of the Grenfell community.

One of the first people to speak said: "I don't think you are going to do us justice.

"I'm just watching you here. We need someone who's real."

Meanwhile, Communities Secretary Sajid Javid announced on Wednesday that a new taskforce had been appointed to support Kensington and Chelsea Council as it managed its long-term response to the disaster.

With members including Javed Khan, chief executive of the charity Barnardo's, and Jane Scott, the leader of Wiltshire Council, it will aim to also listen to "the views of the local community". 

The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) said the organisation's role would be to oversee the crisis-hit council's engagement with survivors, ensure housing needs are addressed promptly, examining the "weaknesses in the tenant management organisation" and develop a plan for the future of the Grenfell Tower site.

It will also "ensure that the right leadership and governance arrangements are in place across the Council", the DCLG said.

Mr Javid said: "I am determined that everything possible is done to support the local community following the disaster.

"This includes ensuring an effective recovery plan is developed that takes into account the views of the local community. The new Taskforce has extensive experience in this area and will provide the Council with the expertise needed to deliver this important work."

Grenfell Legal Support, an organisation set up in the wake of the fire to assist families, said it had been "spreading information on the ground to empower affected people to make their own informed choice on who they want to instruct".

A spokeswoman said their advice was based on three "Cs", telling survivors to consider the credibility of the law firm in dealing with cases similar to the disaster, their capacity to take it on in the long term and their levels of compassion. 

One of the two lawyers who run the group lost a family friend in the fire.