Official review backs 'Hillsborough law' proposals

Review by former bishop of Liverpool makes 25 recommendations for future inquests involving public authorities

An official review of the Hillsborough families’ 27-year ordeal since the 1989 disaster has recommended that bereaved families must have funding for full legal representation at inquests where public authorities are represented.

The review, by the Right Rev James Jones, a former bishop of Liverpool, also calls for police officers and public bodies to have a “duty of candour”, requiring them to cooperate fully with investigations.

Commissioned by Theresa May when she was home secretary after verdicts of unlawful killing were returned at the new inquests into the disaster last April, Jones’s review supports reforms known as the “Hillsborough law”, proposed by families, Labour MPs and the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham.

Hillsborough families and their lawyers have argued for years that the response by South Yorkshire police and a lack of funded representation were key to the legal system failing to establish the truth about the disaster, leaving the families into years of campaigning for justice.

The families, and a group of Labour MPs who have urged the government to implement the “Hillsborough law”, say the reforms would help victims of the Grenfell fire, relatives of people who have died in custody and other bereaved families who currently have no right to legal aid funding.

The review also calls for police and other public bodies to reappraise their treatment of bereaved families, be fully honest, open and transparent in their response, and avoid institutional defensiveness when their failings may have contributed to people dying.

The first of 25 recommendations is for police and public bodies to sign up to a charter committing them to help all public inquiries and inquests fully and truthfully, to “avoid seeking to defend the indefensible” and not to mislead the public or the media.

After the disaster at the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough, in which 96 people were killed in a crush, South Yorkshire police sought to avoid any blame being levelled at them for crowd management failures, and accused Liverpool supporters of drunkenness and misbehaviour.

The 96 people who died in the Hillsborough disaster
The 96 people who died in the Hillsborough disaster. Photograph: Hillsborough Inquests/PA

The bereaved families, many of them parents whose teenage children had been killed in the crush, were not entitled to legal aid, while the police force, individual police officers, Sheffield city council, South Yorkshire metropolitan ambulance service and other organisations all had solicitors and senior barristers paid for with public money.

The families complained that South Yorkshire police officers in particular had not been open or candid in their response, that their treatment of the families was dehumanising, and that officers fed false stories to the media. Barry Devonside, whose 18-year-old son Christopher was one of 37 teenagers killed at Hillsborough, is quoted in Jones’s report saying: “The police’s priority was to put a plan in place to protect officers and not families.”

In the charter to which Jones recommends all police forces and public bodies should sign up, they would commit to: “Place the public interest above our own reputation” and “approach forms of public scrutiny – including public inquiries and inquests – with candour, in an open, honest and transparent way, making full disclosure of relevant documents, material and facts. Our objective is to assist the search for the truth.”

Citing the experiences of family members who felt mistreated and intruded on by the media in the immediate aftermath of their relatives dying, the review calls for stronger adherence to media codes of practice that prohibit harassment and the invasion of privacy.

Brenda Fox, whose 21-year-old son, Steven, died at Hillsborough, is cited as saying of the media: “We felt we were treated like scum.”

Alastair Machray, the editor of the Liverpool Echo, who made a submission to the review, said journalists should be trained in specific techniques for interviewing trauma victims.

Jones said it was beyond his remit to comment on the calls for an inquiry into alleged South Yorkshire police malpractice relating to the events at Orgreave during the miners strike in 1984, which the government rejected last year. The review does, however, call on the Home Office to review its processes so that it makes “informed and transparent decisions, and sets out publicly what its policy is on historic inquiries into police malpractice and other injustice”.

Accusing public authorities and private companies involved at Hillsborough of “the patronising disposition of unaccountable power”, Jones said: “The Hillsborough families know that there are others who have found that when in all innocence and with a good conscience they have asked questions of those in authority on behalf of those they love, the institution has closed ranks, refused to disclose information, used public money to defend its interests and acted in a way that was both intimidating and oppressive.

“And so the Hillsborough families’ struggle to gain justice for the 96 has a vicarious quality to it so that whatever they can achieve in calling to account those in authority is of value to the whole nation.”

Margaret Aspinall, the chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, whose 18-year-old son James was killed in the disaster, welcomed the report and urged the government to implement the recommendations immediately.

“Implementing these reforms will mean that the Grenfell families and others will never have to go through what we did, and we hope they will get justice and accountability for the deaths of their loved ones. For us, this is the legacy of the 96 people who died, that changes will be made for the future good of the country.”

Deborah Coles, director of the Inquest charity, which supports families affected by state-related deaths said:

“It is vital the Government acts on these recommendations to support recently bereaved families in accessing trust, justice and accountability; not least those affected by the Grenfell fire. The legacy of Hillsborough should be improvements across the inquest system to benefit families who are still coming up against many of the same hurdles that the Hillsborough families had to battle against.”

In her initial response, the home secretary, Amber Rudd, did not commit to implementing the charter, public funding for bereaved families at inquests, the “duty of candour” or any other specific recommendation, but said they would be considered.

“I am grateful to Bishop James Jones for undertaking this important piece of work,” she said. “His thoughtful and considered report raises important points.

“The government will now carefully study the 25 points of learning and we will provide a full response in due course.”


David Conn

The GuardianTramp

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