Civil Liberties
Inquests & Public Inquiries

Collapse of Hillsborough trial highlights need for new law

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Terry Wilcox

Associate Solicitor and Manager of Public Inquiries

4 min read time
27 May 2021

The collapse of a trial of retired South Yorkshire police officers and a former force lawyer who were accused of perverting justice by altering police statements in the aftermath of the 1989 Hillsborough football disaster has brought the need for new laws to be introduced sharply into focus.

After five weeks of evidence in which the prosecution accused the men of trying to “minimise the blame” on the force after 96 Liverpool fans died at the FA Cup semi-final in Sheffield, the trial judge, Mr Justice William Davis, concluded there was no case for the jury to consider.

The allegations arose from the aftermath of the tragic events at Hillsborough Stadium, and the publication of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report in 2012.

That report resulted in the South Yorkshire Police Chief Constable apologising for the force’s failings, and accepting that senior officers had changed statements for the inquiry.

The longest Inquest in English legal history followed, of which I was involved in representation, and resulted in a conclusion that 95 victims had been unlawfully killed.

Potential offences were then brought against several individuals including Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, who was in charge of the police operation on the day of the disaster.

However, the only successful conviction was against Graham Mackrell, club secretary of Sheffield Wednesday Football club, for failing to provide a sufficient number of turnstiles. He received a fine.

The court yesterday ruled that ex-chief superintendent Donald Denton, 83, ex-detective chief inspector Alan Foster, 74, and former force lawyer Peter Metcalf, 71, had no case to answer for altering statements for the inquiry.

Mr Metcalf had been instructed by Municipal Mutual Insurance Company, the insurers of South Yorkshire Police (SYP), to advise in relation to any legal process which might follow the tragic events, including the content of accounts provided by police officers who had been on duty at Hillsborough on the day in question.

Mr Denton and Mr Foster in 1989 were senior officers in the force and involved in dealing with those accounts at one or more stages of the process.

Judge Mr Justice William Davis concluded the police officers had no legal duty to provide the whole truth “warts and all” to the 1989 public inquiry into the disaster and that amending statements had not been a crime.

This was because the law states that, as an authority, officers of South Yorkshire Police were within their rights to choose what information to give to the inquiry and what to leave out, as long as it was not misleading.

The law remains the same now.

There is currently no duty on a public authority to tell the truth at inquiries, meaning they are able to hide material or alter material which is detrimental to institutional reputation.

Hillsborough law must be brought back to Parliament

It is wrong and brings us to the issue of the Hillsborough Law, a legacy project of the Hillsborough families to introduce a new law which would make it a legal duty for public institutions to tell the truth in proceedings, investigations and inquiries, and to act with candour and frankness.

Officials would be fined or imprisoned for failing to do so, or for feeding misleading information to the media.

The proposed new law was introduced into Parliament in March 2017 and received cross-party support at its first reading. It never progressed to become law though as it failed to go through a second reading before the Government called a general election.

It is a matter which needs urgent review and is extremely important for any current Public Inquiries (Manchester and Grenfell) but also of course any future Inquiry into the Government’s handling of the Covid pandemic.

Public Inquiries are in place to ensure the truth is uncovered and crucial lessons learned. That simply can’t be achieved when state bodies are allowed to pick and choose the evidence they provide.

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Collapse of Hillsborough trial highlights need for new law

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