Opinion

When a four-year-old bulk carrier, supposedly built and classed to extraordinary specifications, sinks in a distinctly unextraordinary typhoon, there are bound to be issues that the victims' families find hard to come to terms with. But in the case of merchant vessel The Derbyshire, it has taken 20 years to hold a meaningful inquiry.

The Derbyshire disappeared in 1980 with 44 people on board, but the British Government – against the norm in the face of such massive loss of life – decided not to hold a public inquiry. Even after its sister ship Tyne Bridge developed cracking during a North Sea storm and weaknesses were discovered in a further three of the six-ship series completed at the same time as The Derbyshire, the Government continued to blame heavy weather.

Only the wrecking of another sister ship, Kowloon Bridge, off the coast of Southern Ireland, persuaded the Government to allow the first formal investigation into The Derbyshire – seven years after it went down.

But the victims' families felt bypassed by the legal process of the first inquiry. They felt their comments were not taken into account and they were completely dissatisfied with the inquiry and its outcome.

By the time the families realised court proceedings were flowing in the direction of blaming the weather, it was too late. The report was published nine years after the tragedy and the families felt no serious attempt had been made to find the wreck. The inquiry was, therefore, held in the absence of potentially vital evidence. The families were left with a result that they had played no part in and found difficult to accept. This legal arrogance left them feeling embittered and desperate for redress.

The Derbyshire Families Association embarked on a decade-long lobbying campaign. And in 1994 it persuaded the International Transport Federation to fund an investigation to prove that The Derbyshire could be found in a location which had been predicted by experts. It was only the extraordinary pressure of the association that brought about this result, yet when the wreck investigation was ordered in 1995, the association's representatives were disappointed at not being allowed to accompany assessors to the site.

The work involved the largest forensic investigation of a merchant ship ever undertaken, involving some 4,000 hours of video and 137,000 photographs, all taken by remote submersibles two miles under water. The case represents a watershed in wreck investigation. Hopefully, a ship need never go missing again – only missing pending location.

After three years of work and consideration, Lord Donaldson published his report. However, the onus was still on the families to push for a full inquiry in the face of considerable opposition from the other interested parties, Bibby Tankers, British Ship Builders and Lloyd's Register.

It was not until 1999 that John Prescott ordered a full rehearing of the inquiry, which took place in March 1999. This time the chairman of the Families Association was present throughout the whole of the proceedings.

Frequent briefing sessions were held with the families to explain the findings of expert witnesses and counsel's arguments, and full information was made available to them at each stage.

This was not a quest for compensation – it was a search for the truth. Whatever the outcome, this time the families feel that their case has been presented and that they have been listened to.

But why did they need to go through the process twice to achieve this? The inquiry has cost millions of pounds of public money and has wrapped lawyers up for years in continuous lobbying and case work. The team for the families included more than 10 lawyers and experts at any one time.

The remedy of the second inquiry lay not in rewriting the law, but administering it in a manner that supported those who had suffered most.

Stephen Cantor is a partner at Manchester-based law firm Boote Edgar Esterkin.