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I have never been able to view Hillsborough with the dispassionate eye lawyers are supposed to bring to bear, writes Mark George QC. That’s probably because long before I ever thought of becoming a lawyer I had already caught the football bug myself. Pic by Dr Gray.
In 1989 the chances of my team getting to an FA Cup semi-final were next to non-existent but back in the days before football sold its soul to TV moguls FA Cup semi-finals meant only one thing – a trip to a neutral ground. You knew then you really were just one step away from Wembley. And quite apart from the sheer awfulness of the tragedy itself I was always horribly aware that it could have happened to any of us – it just happened to be Liverpool fans but it could have happened to anyone, and no one goes to a football match to die however much we loved Bill Shankly’s views on life and death.
Just like the assassination of JFK, I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing that sunny April afternoon. I was having a kick about in the park with my two young sons, themselves in their first season following Dad’s team, and we used to take a radio with us so we could listen to the commentary whilst we played football.
The original inquests were a farce and a cover-up. How could anyone believe that the deaths were ‘accidental’? There were anything but. The deaths happened because of the gross negligence and crass stupidity of the leadership of the South Yorkshire police coupled with their ill-disguised contempt for football fans and indeed the working class in general. The decision of the original coroner to refuse to allow any evidence to be taken of events after 3.15 pm, a time by which he arbitrarily decided all those who died had already received their fatal injuries, was a poor and highly dubious one even by the standards of the time.
It was of course very convenient for the police and ambulance service because amongst other things it meant there could be no investigation of the role of the emergency services in helping to turn a tragedy into a full blown disaster by acting like rabbits frozen to the spot when faced by events that, in their complacency and arrogance, they had not prepared to deal with. And that of course was what the original inquest was all about – getting the police, the ambulance service and Sheffield Wednesday FC, owners of an already dilapidated ground off the hook. Nothing to do with giving the families justice, after all they were just a bunch of Scousers whose loved ones could easily be caricatured as drunken yobs.
No room for doubt
But on the Wednesday before Christmas 2012, the Attorney General went to the High Court and asked that the original inquest verdicts of accidental death be quashed and that new inquests should be ordered. The Lord Chief Justice with good grace and showing considerable respect for all the suffering of the families duly obliged. So new inquests will now be held. The law relating to inquests has changed significantly since 1989. The effect of the decision in R. (Middleton) v. West Somerset Coroner  AC 182 and the impact of the Human Rights Act 1998 mean the new inquest will be far more wide-ranging in its scope than was the case at the original one. Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights requires the state to provide an investigation capable of allowing the jury to express its views on the central factual issue in the case – something the first inquest conspicuously prevented the jury from doing.
Such has been the strength of the campaign for Justice for the 96 who died and such was the impact of the devastating conclusions of the Independent Panel’s report that there is no room for doubt as to the extent of the travesty of justice that was meted out at the original inquest, and it will take a foolish judge to rule out the most thorough and far reaching investigation of the circumstances surrounding the deaths. And why would any judge do that anyway? To the families who have suffered so much that is the least that the state, whose agents were so culpable, owes them.
And if the inquest is conducted properly and if the jury are properly directed then it is much more likely now that proper verdicts will mean verdicts of unlawful killing, which is after all what the families have known was the cause of the deaths of their loved ones ever since the tragedy first began to unfold.
The announcement of the new inquests follows on from other announcements of a new investigation by the IPCC and an investigation by the police themselves under the former Chief Constable of Durham. After all that they have been through and given the track record of the both the IPCC and especially the police when investigating police misconduct, it is understandable that some of the families may feel uneasy about such investigations and it remains to be seen where these inquires take the matter. Criminal prosecutions cannot be ruled out and indeed at this early stage it is fair to say that some prosecutions seem a very likely outcome.
It has been said before that justice delayed is justice denied and never can that have been truer than of the appalling suffering of the Hillsborough families and their friends. It is to their very great credit that they refused to back down or to accept the injustice to which they have been subjected for so long. The campaign for justice has been inspiring and finally it seems the Hillsborough families will have their day. Where and when this will all end is hard to say. Even under modern rules inquests can be very frustrating to the families because of their inability to investigate all the matters the families probably think should be investigated. What will come of the IPCC and police investigations remains to be seen. Again it should be borne in mind that criminal proceedings are not the same as an inquiry. Like inquests, criminal proceedings have a relatively limited remit. It is the guilt of the accused that is in issue and nothing more. So it may be that even when all the current proceedings and inquiries have finished there may still be demands for a full judicial inquiry.
Whatever happens there is no quick end in sight for the families. But after all they have been through I am sure they will be prepared to wait a few more years if it finally means they can get the justice they so desperately crave. It can be said however that this is not the end, nor is it even the beginning of the end of the struggle for Justice for the 96. It is perhaps fair to say however that the overturning of the inquest verdicts represents the end of the beginning of that struggle. All football fans, regardless of our petty squabbles and silly tribalism as well as all good people will wish them well in their quest.