Judge calls for new inquiry into New Cross fire

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The Independent Online

The Home Office will be asked to order a public inquiry into a fire in south-east London that killed 13 black youngsters in 1981.

The original inquest returned an open verdict on the cause of the blaze, which happened at a party in New Cross Road, Deptford.

If the request for a public inquiry is turned down, the High Court will be asked in the autumn to quash the original inquest and order a second.

Mr Justice Stanley Burnton, a High Court judge, ruled in favour of the request yesterday after hearing that fresh evidence had emerged that made a public inquiry or another inquest "necessary and desirable in the interests of justice and in the public interest".

Circumstances surrounding the outbreak of the fire have never been fully established.

A new investigation by the Metropolitan Police's racial and violent crime task force began in 1997. Last year its findings were submitted to the Attorney General's office, and the police won permission to apply to the High Court for the first inquest to be quashed and a second held. But yesterday, all parties in the case, including families of the dead and the Metropolitan Police, agreed that an inquiry brought under the 1947 Fire Service Act would be the more effective way of resolving the mystery.

The approach to the Home Office for an inquiry will be made by the Inner London South Coroner, Selena Lynch. Her counsel, Ian Burnett, told the court: "It is her view that a coroner's inquest into these deaths 20 years after the event is second best. The best solution to the problem would be a public inquiry, which is much better equipped to get to the bottom of what occurred and satisfy all those outstanding concerns about the fire."

Simon Freeland QC, appearing for Sir John Stevens, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, said open verdicts had been returned on all the victims in 1981. But he said the commissioner was submitting that "new facts and evidence have been discovered and there is a real possibility of a different verdict being returned".

There is new forensic evidence connected with an alternative account of the fire's origin, and statements from witnesses that Norman Higgins and Emelora Gibbs were at the party despite having denied being there. Lawyers for the police stressed that the "finger of suspicion" was not pointed at the pair. There is also fresh evidence from Caroline Lombardo, who said nail varnish had been spilt on the carpet in the Deptford house.

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