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Hillsborough, Police complaints and accountability


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The idea that the UK criminal justice system is improving and reforming is an attractive assumption. The recent Hillsborough inquest result tends to reinforce that idea. But, as usual, the reality is more complex. The struggle of the Hillsborough families and their supporters for justice has been carried out over a quarter-century.  Contemporary history suggests that grassroots pressure, from people who refuse to accept an unjust outcome, is key to ensuring accountability.

The Hillsborough crime, the aftermath, the cover-up, and the struggle for justice all demonstrate disdain shown for the supporters, victims and relatives by police and the coronial system. The failure or absence of legal accountability and the cosy relationship between police and press were also significant.   

In 2016, the Hillsborough families got justice through mechanisms which did not exist at the time of the deaths in 1989. Initially, various avenues of justice were available to the families, including the inquiry led by Lord Justice Taylor, a complaint against the police via the Police Complaints Authority, an inquest, and actions against the police for damages. The outcomes of all of these were unsatisfactory, in that they failed to lay the blame on the police, and enabled the rival explanation, that the victims were responsible, to continue.

The broader context was that in the 1980s both the police and the coroner’s courts were ‘accountable only to the law’, not to any powerful overseeing government body. This meant that they were very hard to challenge overtly in legal terms.

In the absence of any independent body, West Midlands Police investigated South Yorkshire Police on behalf of the Police Complaints Authority.  The PCA’s attempt to bring internal charges against senior police officers was toothless because these could be avoided by resignation. West Midlands Police also investigated on behalf of the public inquiry led by Lord Justice Taylor. Like the first inquest, the Taylor Inquiry contained criticism of police but ultimately freed them from blame. Some families and survivors sued South Yorkshire Police and received payouts, but these were not accompanied by admissions of responsibility. This situation was not new: in the 1950s a Royal Commission was precipitated by the awareness that large sums were being paid by the Metropolitan Police to the public in compensation for police malpractice - but malpractice itself was not admitted.

Since Hillsborough, the landscape has changed. Sometimes this has been government-led.  The 1998 Human Rights Act, which implemented the European Convention of Human Rights into UK law, notably Article 2, the ‘right to life’ has made a big difference. In circumstances where someone is killed by the state, or someone over whom the state has a duty of care, an ‘Article 2 inquest’ is held, which pays a lot more attention to surrounding circumstances than does a usual inquest.

The first Hillsborough verdict, ‘accidental death’, was one of limited number of options available to inquest juries and coroners in the twentieth century. In contrast, the 2014-16 inquest delivered a ‘narrative conclusion’.  This allowed for a much more complex statement in which the coroner can ask a jury to determine in more detail how and why death(s) occurred. This innovative option was introduced by an inquest jury investigating the death of Colin Middleton in Bristol Prison in 1999.  Rather than accept any of the options offered to them by the coroner, the jury insisted on giving a narrative statement as their verdict. Following appeals, the Law Lords agreed that this was a legitimate practice. Narrative verdicts and conclusions have since allowed juries to give fuller explanations of the circumstances leading up to deaths.

The mechanism for investigating police complaints – criticised by the Hillsborough campaigners who helped to expose its weakness – has also seen changes. It was improved by the 1997 Labour government as a consequence of the MacPherson report into the death of Stephen Lawrence.  Pressure and perseverance from Stephen’s parents, Doreen and Neville, made this possible. The new (2004) IPCC conducted its own investigations, though it was initially under-resourced. Sustained campaigning by the family and friends of Sean Rigg, who died in Brixton police station in 2008, uncovered significant inconsistencies in police evidence, which the previous perfunctory IPCC report had missed completely. The IPCC’s reaction was to commission an independent review (the Casale review) and act on its damning findings. It was helped by the fact that by the time it arrived, the Coalition government had ended Labour’s close relationship with police officers’ organisations. It is thanks to these campaigns that today’s IPCC is a far more credible organisation than the Police Complaints Authority of 1989.

Not everything has changed. One remaining flaw is the police/press relationship.  The first reaction of the culpable police at Hillsborough was to lie about the causes of the crush. Much of the press took this up uncritically. British police forces have often offered informal briefings to friendly journalists, and the result has been press inattention to police malpractice. In two twenty-first century cases – the death of Ian Tomlinson after he was attacked by a police officer in the City of London in 2009, and the mistaken shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell station in 2005 - the same practice of newspapers recycling inaccurate police briefings was visible.

For this habit to be prevented, it needs first to be properly investigated. The promised update to the Leveson Inquiry ‘to investigate wrongdoing in the press and the police’ (David Cameron to the Commons, 29 Nov 2012) has yet to emerge, despite the fact that the criminal cases arising from ‘Leveson 1’ are now completed.

State institutions are often more pre-occupied with their own continuance than with the rights of the subject. Today’s citizens do receive a greater degree of respect from the state than was the case in the mid to late-twentieth century.  But this transformation is incomplete. History suggests that outstanding areas of concern will only be addressed by extraordinary levels of perseverance from individuals who insist on justice.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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