Deirdre Malone on an inquest into the tragic deaths of family members killed in a house fire, and the lessons to be learned.
For three days between 22nd and 24th October 2012, the Coroner for the Northern District of Greater London held an inquest into the deaths of six members of the Kua family. On 24th September 2011 a mother, Muna Elmufatish, and five of her six children, died in a fire at their home in Neasden, northwest London. The fire originated in a domestic freezer that had been located in the hall. The catalyst was small in size but potent in effect: a capacitor, which stored electrical charge, had been housed in a highly flammable plastic compartment, rather than one manufactured from pressed steel. When the capacitor failed, it discharged an extremely hot mercury alloy, known as an amalgam, causing a fire which spread to the wider freezer foam insulation, also highly flammable. From there, the fire spread extremely quickly into the hall and upstairs to where the family slept. Both parents made heroic attempts to save their children but the fire very rapidly took hold of the building. All six victims were overcome by the smoke and died of inhalation of fire fumes.
The Inquest and the Verdict
Whirlpool, the manufacturer of the freezer in question, was recognised as a ‘Properly Interested Person’, thereby entitling it to appear at the inquest, ask questions of witnesses and make submissions. It had the benefit of representation by experienced counsel. Furthermore, the company’s expert was permitted to give evidence to the inquest. This evidence was in direct conflict to that provided by the the London Fire Brigade witnesses, who had conducted in depth investigations into the source and cause of the fire
The Coroner gave a narrative verdict, finding that:
“the fire started when the capacitor adjacent to the compressor in a compartment of the domestic freezer failed and caught fire. The freezer was manufactured at time when the housing to the compressor and capacitor had been changed from a pressed steel to a plastic housing. Had the compressor been housed in a pressed steel compartment it is likely the fire would not have reached the insulation”.
Having heard submissions from counsel for the family, the Coroner agreed to exercise his power under Rule 43 of the Coroners Rules 1988. The purpose of this Rule is to enable the Coroner to notify any appropriate authority or organisation of his or her findings in order that steps can be taken to prevent further deaths in similar circumstances. In this case, the Coroner indicated that his Rule 43 report would seek to alert the freezer manufacturing industry to the risk of using the materials that had been used to house the capacitors that had caused the deaths. The report is likely to be sent to the British Electro-technical and Allied Manufacturers Association, the independent expert knowledge base and forum for the electro-technical industry for the UK and across Europe. The organisation, which represents over 300 manufacturing companies in the electro-technical sector, is said to have significant influence over UK and international political, standardisation and commercial policy. The Coroner expressed the hope that the report would be received as “a message being sent” to the industry. He said that any family who had listened to the evidence would have been “unnerved” by it.
As anyone representing the family in an inquest knows, it is often cold comfort for those left behind to know their tragedy is the example from which lessons for the future are learned. However if anything at all positive can come out of this catastrophe it is that the verdict and Rule 43 report will hopefully make a significant and practical difference to the industry, which will very likely avert future deaths.
The inquest and verdict was also widely reported in numerous sources, including the Independent, the Guardian, the Evening Standard, the BBC and The Mirror and on London’s Biggest Conversation and London 24. Again, it is to be hoped that this publicity will make some difference in the future.
Finally, this was yet another inquest where public funding was unavailable for a bereaved family who desperately needed it. Mr Kua could not bear to sit in Court for most of the evidence. His daughter, who had survived by jumping from the first floor window, had recently been discharged from hospital where she had been recovering from her own serious injuries. Both had lost their closest family members in the most appalling of circumstances. The idea that either could possibly be expected effectively to challenge the complex evidence of the key expert witnesses without the assistance of experienced counsel is frankly risible. Both the London Fire Brigade and Whirlpool were of course represented by barristers and solicitors. This is yet another case which demonstrates that the current provision of public funding for inquests needs to be considered much more deeply and overhauled.
Deirdre and Ali Bajwa QC of Garden Court Chambers represented the family of the deceased persons, instructed by Lucy O’Brien of Farooq Bajwa & Company. All the lawyers acting on behalf of the family did so on a pro bono basis.