Hillsborough and The Cover Up: Can Our Legal System Regain Public Confidence?

In the last few weeks we have had to confront the inadequacies not only of the police and emergency services’ response to the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, but also that of the legal system which has taken over two decades to investigate the tragedy to anything approaching an acceptable standard.

Many inquiries and investigations were commissioned in the years following Hillsborough, none of which managed to elicit very much of the truth. The South Yorkshire Police, the force responsible for crowd control at the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, organised an internal inquiry which (now somewhat unsurprisingly) found little to blame in its officers’ behavior.

A team from the West Midlands Police force was brought in to obtain evidence for the Director of Public Prosecutions in the (Lord Justice) Taylor Inquiry and to act as Officers to the Coroner, Dr Stefan Popper, at the formal inquest. Subsequently the Director of Public Prosecutions decided there was ‘insufficient evidence’ to justify any criminal prosecution, and the Coroner’s Court recorded verdicts of ‘Accidental Death’ for the fans killed in the crush and its aftermath. An attempt to discipline two of the senior officers in control at Hillsborough for ‘neglect of duty’ ultimately led nowhere after one of them elected to retire early on medical grounds.

The general public is entitled to ask how it could be possible that these investigations failed to reveal the doctored witness statements, the police cover-ups and the cruel media misrepresentation which have grabbed the headlines some 23 years on. Are the inadequate previous reports to be attributed to a system in which the sectional interests of its custodians and other stakeholders were elevated, often cynically, high above those of the victims and of the general public? The decision to restrict the original inquest to events which took place before 3.15pm was ostensibly due to the deaths or fatal injuries having all occurred before that time. At the inquest it was explained away as a sensible move to sharpen the court’s focus on the central or “key” evidence. It might arguably also have been driven in part by the heavy burden of files and evidence the Coroner faced in the pre-electronic age. A detailed inquiry into all of the circumstances surrounding the 95 individual deaths (the final victim died 4 years later) was perceived by some to threaten a degree of paperwork and analysis which was, before computers, daunting or scarcely achievable. But the 3.15 time limit meant that the focus of the inquest was entirely on the events leading to the crush and the actions of the fans, rather than on the aftermath and the inaction of the police and emergency services. Those who voiced dissenting views on the implications of restricting the issues in this manner were overruled or ignored.  The later scrutiny of events led by Lord Justice Stuart-Smith in 1997 was largely directed to the consideration of evidence which had been unavailable to the previous inquiries. Unfortunately, evidence which had previously been available but which had been “censored” or inadequately analysed, such as many police witness statements and information about the emergency response after 3.15pm, was considered outside the scope of the task and therefore was not reviewed. Unsurprisingly in these circumstances the Judge’s scrutiny led only to the conclusion that there was insufficient new evidence to open a further inquiry.

Still angry and dissatisfied, the Hillsborough Family Support Group met with the Home Secretary in 2009, leading to the appointment of the Hillsborough Independent Panel in 2010. After spending two years analysing no less than 450,000 pages of official documents, the Panel found that the main cause of the disaster was ‘failure in police control’ combined with safety standards which were ‘compromised at every level’. The Panel uncovered instructions from the then Chief Constable of South Yorkshire, Peter Wright, to his officers to prepare a ‘rock solid story’ blaming ‘drunken, ticketless fans’. The South Yorkshire Ambulance Service was also found to have altered statements in an attempt to deflect criticism.

Nonetheless, even in this tragic case the old adage that ‘the truth will out’ now seems to have prevailed. But it has taken more than twenty years and huge perseverance, against the backdrop of many poorly designed and operated investigative structures, in order to get there. The victims’ families will continue to confront the hoops and hurdles of the legal system, now hoping that those responsible for the disaster, and for the resulting cover-up, will finally be brought to justice.

Regrettably, the legal process in its many forms has too often been shown to be inflexible, opaque and open to obstruction and manipulation. Too much time has elapsed to be able to talk of the legal process being able to redeem itself. It is more appropriate to talk in terms of an opportunity to mitigate past injustices and to make (partial) amends for justice having been denied or thwarted for so long. What is now vital is that the future legal actions that are triggered by the findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel are now processed fairly and transparently towards a just conclusion. There must also be a strong sense of proportionality; the wrongs of the past will not be put right by undue severity or by mixing or confusing those individuals genuinely culpable with scapegoats. The 96 victims and their families deserve better than that. The legal system needs to demonstrate that it is, at long last, ‘fit for purpose’.