Hillsborough: ‘This is the beginning of the end.’
This morning was tense, for anyone who knew what was coming it was difficult to concentrate. There was an acute awareness that what was said at 11:30am on Wednesday last week could provide such different endings to a 28 year long story which started with a football match on 15 April 1989, the deaths of 96 football fans and the destruction of many more lives.
You can read our interview with Margaret Aspinall, chairwoman of the Hillsborough Family Support Group here
The families of the 96 waited in Warrington to hear the CPS decision on whether there was enough evidence to press charges against any of those believed to have been in some way to blame for the Hillsborough disaster and its aftermath. The venue was on neutral ground, near to where the Inquests had been held and where the full truth and some justice had finally been won just last year, on 26 April 2016.
The announcement was to be the start of the final chapter for the families of the 96.
For 23 years the families, the survivors and the citizens of Liverpool had lived under a cloud of suspicion, they had fought for the truth but had been denied it at every turn. In 2012 the Hillsborough Independent Panel (HIP) published their report which began to shed light on what had really happened that day and in the hours, weeks and years afterwards. Following the HIP report the momentum grew, the original inquests were quashed and fresh inquests were ordered. The South Yorkshire Police and all other organisations involved that day disclosed thousands of documents relating to what happened that day. Witnesses came forward and told what they knew. The IPCC and the Police force, Operation Resolve (ORIT), opened investigations into the events of the day and their causes.
The inquests opened in March 2014 and were the longest in British history taking over two years to be fully completed. The jury cried as they read their verdicts, and finally the truth was known. The fans had not contributed to the deaths nor were the deaths an accident. An Unlawful Killing verdict was announced.
However the inquests were not the end, the findings at the hearing and the evidence disclosed and given in court had to be considered by the IPCC and ORIT before files could be handed over to the CPS who could only then decide whether they had enough evidence to bring charges.
Sue Hemming, of the Special Crime and Counter-Terrorism Department revealed last week that they would be charging six individuals. Though this may seem limited considering the scale of the disaster it must be remembered how far things have come from the day in 1999 when the High Court judge at the families’ unsuccessful private prosecution refused to allow a retrial and ordered a stay of proceedings against David Duckenfield, the Match Commander on the day. It was announced that he will be charged with gross negligence manslaughter of 95 of the deceased. Under 1989 law Duckenfield cannot be charged for the death of the 96th victim, Tony Bland, as he died so long after the disaster.
Graham Mackrell, who at the time was Safety Officer and Secretary of SWFC will be charged with three health and safety offences. There are no other charges brought relating to the handling of the policing on the day. There are however a number of charges for those involved in the alleged amendment of officers statements after the tragedy. Peter Metcalf solicitor, DCI Alan Foster and CS Donald Denton stand accused of committing acts with intent to pervert the course of justice.
Norman Bettison is to be charged with four counts of misconduct in public office relating to ‘alleged lies about his involvement in the aftermath of Hillsborough and the culpability of fans’. So far only Bettison has commented saying he will ‘vigorously defend [his] innocence’ as he has ‘for the past five years’.
Additionally the IPCC continues to investigate the involvement of West Midlands Police and have passed files on two further suspects to the CPS this week it is possible that charges against other individuals may still be announced.
It was another momentous day for the families of the 96 victims who died on 15 April 1989 at the Hillsborough stadium. It was a momentous day for those who survived the disaster but struggled with injuries, both mental and physical. It was a momentous day for those who attended the match and were described as hooligans and drunks; for those who witnessed the events occur and were powerless to stop them; for a city whose reputation was tarnished by stories published in the aftermath of the tragedy and for all those who have understood that something was wrong with the account of the events of the day and have supported the families in their 28 year fight for justice.
As Elkan Abrahamson of BJC said: ‘The families have pursued and achieved the truth and a measure of Justice in the Inquests but they have always known that accountability is the most difficult objective.’ The journey continues but, as Margaret Aspinall has said: ‘This is the beginning of the end.’
Five of the six have now been charged by way of a court summons calling to appear in Warrington Magistrates Court on August 9, 2017 for the formal start of their prosecution. Charging Duckenfield will be slightly more difficult as a result of the order issued in the High Court in 2000. An application to revoke the stay will be made in the High Court before charges can be brought. Following the charges there will be criminal trials and then come the verdicts.
And so now is the time to watch and wait, with the dignity the families have always shown, as the legal matters take their course and the prosecutorial lawyers do their work. We can hope, as Abrahamson stated on behalf of the families, that during this process ‘the memories of their loved ones and the integrity of the fans who attended Hillsborough will be respected’. It is also important that there can be no avoiding prosecution due to prejudice caused by any of us losing our nerve as we await the outcome of these trials. And so we must allow the rule of law to prevail and hope that this story ends with true justice and accountability.
Siobhan Taylor-Ward is a case officer for the Hillsborough Inquest Team at Jackson and Canter solicitors. She is also a Young Legal Aid Lawyers committee member and co-chair of YLAL Liverpool