‘You must give victims of injustice a level playing field – or else it’s a disgrace,’ the chairwoman of the Hillsborough Family Support Group told MPs today. Margaret Aspinall, who lost her son James in the 1989 disaster, appeared in the House of Commons to demand changes to the criminal justice system in the wake of the Hillsborough verdicts.
‘The issues with Hillsbrough was more than the police, it was political. I was ashamed of the Labour government, they didn’t listen,’ Aspinall said. She proposed a series of reforms including parity of funding for legal representation between bereaved families and public bodies such as the police; as well as a Government commitment to the second stage of the Leveson Inquiry which would examine the relationship between police and the press.
Earlier in the day, Andy Burnham, the shadow home secretary, called on cross-party support for a series of amendments to the Policing and Crime Bill, including retrospective powers leading to sanctions such as pension cuts for retired officers; a code of practice for police forces governing interactions with the media; and that the common law offence of misconduct in public office become a criminal offence.
The MP, whose speech at Anfield on the 20th anniversary of the disaster was famously interrupted by a mass chant of ‘Justice for the 96’, called for a ban on ‘unattributable briefings’ to the media and an end to the time-limit on the period after leaving the force that a retired officer can be investigated. ‘There should be an end to the scandal where police officers can retire on full pensions and, by so doing, evade misconduct proceedings,’ the MP added.
‘We must call time on the uneven playing field at inquests where public bodies spend public money like water on hiring the best lawyers when ordinary families have to scratch around for whatever they can get,’ Burnham said. ‘Public money should be spent on helping us get to the truth, not on protecting the public sector.’
‘The 27-year struggle of the Hillsborough families exposes just how the odds are often stacked against ordinary families in their quest for truth about the loss of loved ones, with too much power in the hands of the authorities.’
‘No-one should have to beg for information about the loss of their loved ones and everyone should be entitled to legal aid,’ Margaret Aspinall told MPs. When her son died she had four other young children. ‘We didn’t have money but my house was rich with love,’ she said. Trevor Hicks, whose two daughters were amongst the 96 dead, asked 42 families for £3,000 to club together to pay for a barrister. Aspinall read out the letter offering her £1,226.35 compensation. ‘I would have loved to have told them to shove that cheque where the sun don’t shine. But we had to raise £150,000 to get a barrister. So I took it,’ she said. ‘Then I got to the inquests and saw the police had 10 barristers, paid by the state, against our one.’
Alex is a human rights researcher and barrister. He has worked around the world, providing legal research to human rights NGOs and parliamentarians.