Families of the 96 dead vindicated

The truth may be out, but the passage of time is likely to stand in the way of prosecutions and new inquests, says Julian Knowles QC, Matrix Chambers

Knowles advised the Hillsborough Family Support Group in the Stuart-Smith Inquiry in 1998

Julian Knowles

If, like me, you went to football matches in the 1970s and 1980s then it is easy to imagine the horror of Hillsborough. I remember often being picked up off the ground by the weight of the surging crowds and pressed forward, fortunately always being released in time. Those who survived the Leppings Lane terrace said it was like that, except the pressure never stopped until it felt like they had been set in concrete.

Until the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report last week, we all thought we knew what happened, and why. After all, Lord Taylor’s public inquiry (one of the few that actually achieved something) unequivocally laid the blame for the disaster at the door of the South Yorkshire Police and exonerated Liverpool fans.

There had been a long inquest, which determined that by 3.15pm all the dead had been irretrievably injured, a determination upheld by the High Court in a judicial review.

There had been civil litigation and compensation; a scrutiny of evidence by Lord Justice Stuart-Smith in 1998 brought further material into the public domain; and in 2000 a private prosecution by the families of the two officers in charge on the day held their personal failings up to public scrutiny.

What more was there to know? The answer, it turns out, is a great deal. The report shows how much remained hidden and it is truly shocking. Those responsible for safety at the ground had abjectly failed to recognise the obvious dangers and officers at South Yorkshire Police were obsessed with hooliganism to the exclusion of just about everything else. Those who died were not all beyond help by 3.15pm.

The report also reveals the extent to which South Yorkshire Police manipulated the evidence of its officers before it was given to the Taylor inquiry and how the force’s solicitors were intimately involved in the process. While Stuart-Smith LJ had known this, he had not appreciated the full extent of what had happened.

So what should happen now? For the families, nothing less than prosecutions for perverting the course of justice and new inquests will suffice. But I have doubts whether this will be the outcome. The passage of time and the complexity of the process by which the statements were altered are likely to present real difficulties for the DPP when he reviews the report’s findings to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to prosecute any individuals.

The fact the editing process was done on legal advice will also raise difficulties of LPP which might prove insurmountable. Past attempts to prosecute police officers for perverting the course of justice ended in failure and Keir Starmer QC will, I’m sure, have that firmly in mind.

The Attorney-General should certainly consider ordering new inquests but the passage of time may again preclude such a course of action.

Even if the report proves to be the final chapter for the Hillsborough families, their belief that the truth had not been told has been vindicated. The establishment of the Hillsborough Permanent Archive by the report will stand as their achievement in defeating those who wanted to bury the truth about the tragedy.