The Hillsborough Inquests – The Jury Speaks Truth to Power

26 April 2020

When we first met the jury panel on 31st March 2014 no one expected that by the end of April 2016 we would still be going.  Even at the start of the year I had thought it would all be over by the end of February and on that basis had agreed to do a trial in Oxford that was due to start at the beginning of April.  So by the time the jury finally retired on 6th April I was no longer attending the Inquests. Towards the end of that month we got the word that the Coroner was going to give the jury the majority direction, that is tell them that they no longer needed to be unanimous in their verdicts so long as a minimum of seven of the remaining nine members agreed to the verdicts. So I travelled north again and back to Warrington. Shortly after the Coroner had given the jury the majority direction we were informed that they had reached verdicts and that these would be delivered the following morning, 26th April 2016. That would be day 319 of the Inquests, the longest case with a jury in England and Wales ever.

26th April 2016 will forever live in the memories of Liverpool fans, the families of the 96 who died in the disaster and their friends who had survived and then lived with the additional horror of being blamed for the deaths of their friends and family members. By this time I had been in practice as a barrister for nearly forty years. I thought I had seen enough things in court not to be surprised by very much. But then I hadn’t ever done a case quite like this one before.

Just after 11.05am the jury filed into a packed court full of eager anticipation. The Coroner Sir John Goldring asked the forewoman if she would confirm the verdicts that he was about to read through with her. The first one was a nice easy opener. Not much doubt the way this one was going to go.

 

THE CORONER: Question 1: Basic facts of the disaster.

Do you agree with the following statement which is intended to summarise the basic facts of the disaster: 

‘Ninety-six people died as a result of the disaster at Hillsborough Stadium on 15 April 1989 due to crushing in the central pens of the Leppings Lane terrace, following the admission of a large number of supporters to the stadium through exit gates’.

Was your answer, madam, “yes”?

FOREWOMAN: It was.

 

Questions 2 to 5 dealt with the police planning for the match, policing on the day and the failure of order the closure of the gate into the central tunnel.

 

THE CORONER: Question 2: Police planning for the semi-final match.

Question: ‘Was there any error or omission in police planning and preparation for the semi-final match on 15 April 1989 which caused or contributed to the dangerous situation that developed on the day of the match?’

Was your answer, madam, “yes”?

FOREWOMAN: It was.

THE CORONER: Did the jury give the following explanation:

‘The jury feel that there were major omissions in the 1989 operational order, including: specific instructions for managing the crowds outside the Leppings Lane turnstiles; specific instructions as to how the pens were to be filled and monitored; specific instructions as to who would be responsible for the monitoring of the pens.’

FOREWOMAN: That’s correct.

 

THE CORONER: Question 3: Policing of the match and the situation at the turnstiles.

Question: ‘Was there any error or omission in policing on the day of the match which caused or contributed to a dangerous situation developing at the Leppings Lane turnstiles?’

Was your answer “yes”?

FOREWOMAN: It was.

THE CORONER: Did the jury give the following explanation:

‘Police response to the increasing crowds at Leppings Lane was slow and uncoordinated. The road closure and sweep of fans exacerbated the situation. No filter cordons were placed in Leppings Lane. No contingency plans were made for the sudden arrival of a large number of fans. Attempts to close the perimeter gates were made too late.’

FOREWOMAN: That’s correct.

 

THE CORONER: Question 4: Policing of the match and the crush on the terrace.

‘Was there any error or omission by commanding officers which caused or contributed to the crush on the terrace?’

Was your answer “yes”?

FOREWOMAN: It was.

THE CORONER:  Have the jury given the following explanation:

‘Commanding officers should have ordered the closure of the central tunnel before the opening of gate C was requested, as pens 3 and 4 were full. Commanding officers should have requested the number of fans still to enter the stadium after 2.30 pm. Commanding officers failed to recognise that pens 3 and 4 were at capacity before gate C was opened. Commanding officers failed to order the closure of the tunnel as gate C was opened.’

FOREWOMAN: That’s correct.

 

THE CORONER: Question 5: The opening of the gates.

‘When the order was given to open the exit gates at the Leppings Lane end of the stadium, was there any error or omission by the commanding officers in the control box which caused or contributed to the crush on the terrace?’

Was your answer “yes”?

FOREWOMAN: It was.

THE CORONER: Have the jury given the following explanation:

‘Commanding officers should have ordered the closure of the central tunnel before the opening of gate C was requested, as pens 3 and 4 were full. Commanding officers should have requested the number of fans still to enter the stadium after 2.30 pm. Commanding officers failed to recognise that pens 3 and 4 were at capacity before gate C was opened. Commanding officers failed to order the closure of the tunnel as gate C was opened.’

FOREWOMAN: That’s correct.

 

Welcome as these verdicts no doubt were to those massed in court on 26th April, there must have been a ring of familiarity about them to many. Way back in August 1989 Lord Taylor had concluded that, “although there were other causes, the main reason for the disaster was the failure of police control” [Interim report para 278].

As for the failure to order the closure of the gate into the tunnel, this had famously been described by Lord Taylor as “a blunder of the first magnitude” [Paragraph 231]. So far then the verdicts, whilst promising for the families actually told them no more than Lord Taylor had found twenty-seven years earlier.

Everyone in that courtroom knew however that Question 6 and the jury’s answer would determine the outcome of these Inquests and the way they would forever be perceived. If there was finally to be a measure of justice for the dead and their bereaved families and friends it would be the determination that the deceased had not died as the result of some sort of accident as the 1991 Inquests had absurdly concluded but as the result of unlawful killing. I had sat through all six days of David Duckenfield’s evidence in 2015 and in my mind there was no doubt that he had admitted all the elements of unlawful killing in the course of that evidence, including memorably in answers given to his own barrister.

But even so we knew getting the jury to agree this conclusion was a tall order. Unlike the other questions which were all decided on the balance of probabilities, the jury had to be sure, as in a criminal trial, before they could return this conclusion. It also required the jury to concentrate solely on the failings of the match commander David Duckenfield. However useless the jury concluded the other senior officers had been that afternoon, none of that was relevant to the question of unlawful killing. We knew in advance that the jury had not reached a unanimous decision on this question. Until the moment the forewoman answered I thought we might not get this conclusion as I thought the jury might have felt it was going too far to effectively blame one man for what was on any view a catastrophic failure by many senior police officers.

 

THE CORONER: Question 6: Determination on the unlawful killing issue.

‘Are you satisfied, so that you are sure, that those who died in the disaster were unlawfully killed?’

Was your answer “yes”?

FOREWOMAN: It was.

 

When the forewoman confirmed that the jury were sure that the 96 had been unlawfully killed the families in the courtroom broke into excited shouts of joy and relief. For many of the families this was the holy grail, confirmation that the most senior officer on duty at Hillsborough had failed in his duty so grossly that it amounted to criminal behaviour. Finally, it seemed there might not only be some justice for the 96 but even some accountability as well.

But in that moment of euphoria we knew there might yet be a sting in the tail. The next question asked whether the supporters had contributed in any way to the dangerous build-up outside the ground. This had been the focus of the whole case of the police teams, that the disaster was all the fault of the fans who were variously drunk, late or didn’t have tickets and not the police. In order to try to counter this attack we had played the jury over and over the CCTV footage showing the build-up and behaviour of the crowd outside Leppings Lane from about 2pm onwards. The logic of the question was of course that those who died, who were all still alive when gate C was opened at 14.52 and many of whom only entered the ground through that gate, had caused their own deaths and that their friends, brothers and sisters who did not die were in fact responsible for their deaths.

As many inside the court would have appreciated at the time this was the courtroom equivalent of that moment right at the end of the 2005 Champions League semi-final second leg at Anfield when Eider Gudjohnsen had the chance to win the game for Chelsea.  Liverpool were a goal up but with away goals counting double in the event of a draw if Chelsea had scored then it would have been them rather than Liverpool who progressed to the final in Istanbul. Suddenly that progress was in the balance. The ball was floated into the Liverpool penalty area. It was met by a Chelsea player and headed across the box.  Eventually it fell to Gudjohnsen on the edge of the six-yard box. Gudjohnsen’s shot arrowed across the face of the Liverpool goal from a narrow angle and in the crowded penalty area with three Liverpool players rushing back to try to clear the ball from so close to the line and with Didier Drogba intent on attacking the ball, anything might have happened. I have watched the replay of that shot a hundred times and each time I am sure the ball will end up in the back of the net, simply because it seems impossible that it could travel across the six-yard box and not get a touch off any player. How the ball managed not to take a touch of any kind, which would surely have seen it fly into the Liverpool net, remains a mystery of science and football. Now eleven years on from that famous night, and in very different circumstances, the same level of tension would have coursed through the veins of many of those in court.

 

THE CORONER: Question 7: ‘Was there any behaviour on the part of football supporters which caused or contributed to the dangerous situation at the Leppings Lane turnstiles?’

Was your answer “no”?

FOREWOMAN: It was.

 

THE CORONER: ‘Was there any behaviour on the part of football supporters which may have caused or contributed to the dangerous situation at the Leppings Lane turnstiles?’

Was your answer “no”?

FOREWOMAN: It was.

 

When the forewoman made it clear that the jury had unanimously rejected this disgraceful slur by the police the courtroom erupted into wild cheering. Finally, the fans had been exonerated and all the calumnies that had been heaped on the Liverpool fans over the years had been shown to be lies.

Many of those in court that day will tell you that they were so overcome by the emotion of the moment that they neither heard nor frankly much cared about the remainder of the verdicts. They were however not without significance. Question 8 highlighted the failures of Sheffield Wednesday FC whose ground Hillsborough was, in respect of the crush barriers at the Leppings Lane terraces, the lack of dedicated turnstiles or indeed sufficient turnstiles at all that day and the useless signage inside the ground to assist spectators.

 

THE CORONER: Question 8: Defects in Hillsborough Stadium.

‘Were there any features of the design, construction and layout of the stadium which you consider were dangerous or defective and which caused or contributed to the disaster?’

Was your answer “yes”?

FOREWOMAN: It was.

THE CORONER: Have the jury given the following explanation:

‘Design and layout of the crush barriers in pens 3 and 4 were not fully compliant with the Green Guide. The removal of barrier 144 and the partial removal of barrier 136 would have exacerbated the waterfall effect of pressure towards the front of the pens. The lack of dedicated turnstiles for individual pens meant that capacities could not be monitored. There were too few turnstiles for a capacity crowd. Signage to the side pens was inadequate.’

FOREWOMAN: That’s correct.

 

Question 9 addressed the embarrassing failure by those responsible to make changes to the safety certificate which could have made a significant difference to the numbers allowed onto the terraces at all.

 

THE CORONER: Question 9: Licensing and oversight of Hillsborough Stadium.

‘Was there any error or omission in the safety certification and oversight of Hillsborough Stadium that caused or contributed to the disaster?’

Was your answer “yes”?

FOREWOMAN: It was.

THE CORONER: Have you given the following explanation:

‘The safety certificate was never amended to reflect the changes at the Leppings Lane end of the stadium. Therefore, capacity figures were never updated. The capacity figures for the Leppings Lane terraces were incorrectly calculated when the safety certificate was first issued. The safety certificate had not been reissued since 1986.’ 

Is that correct?

FOREWOMAN: Yes, that’s correct.

 

Questions 10 and 11 involved further criticism of the football club and question 12 implicated the club’s then structural engineers Eastwood and Partners.

 

THE CORONER: Question 10:  Conduct of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club before the day of the match. 

‘Was there any error or omission by Sheffield Wednesday Football Club (and its staff) in the management of the stadium and/or preparation for the semi-final match on 15 April 1989 which caused or contributed to the dangerous situation that developed on the day of the match?’

Was your answer “yes”?

FOREWOMAN: It was.

THE CORONER: Have the jury given the following explanation:

‘The club did not approve the plans for dedicated turnstiles for each pen. The club did not agree any contingency plans with the police. There was inadequate signage and inaccurate, misleading information on the semi-final tickets.’

FOREWOMAN: That’s correct.

 

THE CORONER: Question 11: Conduct of Sheffield Wednesday football Club on the day of the match.

‘Was there any error or omission by Sheffield Wednesday Football Club (and its staff) on 15 April 1989 which may have caused or contributed to the dangerous situation that developed at the Leppings Lane turnstiles and in the west terrace?’

Was your answer “yes”?

FOREWOMAN: It was.

THE CORONER: Have the Jury given the following explanation:

‘Club officials were aware of the huge numbers of fans still outside the Leppings Lane turnstiles at 2.40. They should have requested a delayed kick-off at this point.’ 

Is that correct?

FOREWOMAN: That’s correct. 

 

THE CORONER: Question 12: Conduct of Eastwood & Partners.

‘Should Eastwood & Partners have done more to detect and advise on any unsafe or unsatisfactory features of Hillsborough Stadium which caused or contributed to the disaster?’

Was your answer “yes”?

FOREWOMAN: It was.

THE CORONER: Have the Jury given the following explanation:

‘Eastwoods did not make their own calculations when they became consultants for Sheffield Wednesday Football Club. Therefore, the initial capacity figures and all subsequent calculations were incorrect. Eastwoods failed to recalculate capacity figures each time changes were made to the terraces. Eastwoods failed to update the safety certificate after 1986. Eastwoods failed to recognise that the removal of barrier 144 and the partial removal of barrier 136 could result in a dangerous situation in the pens.’

FOREWOMAN: That’s correct.

 

And although they were the final verdicts, the answers to Questions 13 and 14 did not pass unnoticed either. The answers reflect the fact that the jury had evidently taken a dim view of the frankly pathetic efforts of both the police and ambulance service to first of all realise a disaster was unfolding before their very eyes and secondly to take any effective action to relieve the crush and the suffering of those involved. Two specific incidents come to my mind. The first is Superintendent Greenwood, the most senior officer inside the ground apart from Duckenfield, wasting precious time by hanging off the Leppings Lane fence fully 5 minutes after the match had been halted, engaged in an action of the utmost futility, urging people to move back as if they had any chance to move at all in that deadly crush. The second is of two hopeless South Yorkshire ambulance personnel who somehow managed to walk right along one side of the Leppings Lane end from corner flag to behind the goal, at the very time the match was called off and failed to notice a massive crush right in front of them before they walked across the penalty area and wandered nonchalantly back down the pitch away from the unfolding disaster. So it was that precious time that might have resulted in a lower loss of life was frittered away.

 

THE CORONER: Question 13: Emergency response and the role of the south Yorkshire Police.

‘After the crush in the west terrace had begun to develop, was there any error or omission by the police which caused or contributed to the loss of lives in the disaster?’

Was your answer “yes”?

FOREWOMAN: It was.

THE CORONER: Have you given the following explanation:

‘The police delayed calling a major incident, so the appropriate emergency responses were delayed. There was a lack of coordination, communication, command and control which delayed or prevented appropriate responses.’

FOREWOMAN: That’s correct.

 

THE CORONER: Finally, Question 14: Emergency response and the role of the South Yorkshire Metropolitan Ambulance service (SYMAS).

‘After the crush in the west terrace had begun to develop, was there any error or omission by the ambulance service (SYMAS) which caused or contributed to the loss of lives in the disaster?’

Was your answer “yes”?

FOREWOMAN: It was.

THE CORONER: Have you given the following explanation:

‘SYMAS officers at the scene failed to ascertain the nature of the problem at Leppings Lane. The failure to recognise and call a major incident led to delays in responses to the emergency.’

FOREWOMAN: That’s correct.

 

In total it took just seventeen minutes between 11.05 and 11.22 for the jury to return conclusions fixing responsibility for the Hillsborough disaster firmly at the doors of the South Yorkshire Police, Sheffield Wednesday FC, Sheffield City Council, the Club’s engineers Eastwood & Partners, and so far as the woefully inadequate rescue effort was concerned South Yorkshire Metropolitan Ambulance Service as well as SYP. By the time the Coroner adjourned for the final time at 4.20pm we had seen all the family members in court give the jury a standing ovation, richly deserved after two whole years of listening to the evidence.

I thought it was important to write this article on the anniversary of the inquest verdicts because I am aware that some of the families have experienced very profound despair and unhappiness at the subsequent acquittal of David Duckenfield on charges of the manslaughter by gross negligence for those who died at Hillsborough. There has also been inordinate delay in listing the final criminal trials arising from the disaster. Some have even expressed the view that the acquittal has rendered the inquest verdicts pointless.

As a lawyer I suppose I can be a little more detached than those who experienced the disaster and the dreadful loss of life. In writing this account therefore I hope to remind those in despair that their victory at the inquests was not pointless at all. It was not all a colossal waste of time. Those 14 verdicts represent forever the complete and utter vindication of them and their extraordinary campaign for justice for the 96. Their victory changed the official narrative of Hillsborough. From now on the official record confirms that the disaster was the fault entirely of those charged with organising, protecting and policing the fans at that match. As the jury made clear the disaster was in no way caused or contributed to by the fans who attended.

 

That night Prime Minister David Cameron issued a statement in which he said:

“Today is a landmark moment in the quest for justice for the 96 Liverpool fans who died on that dreadful day in April 1989.

It is also a long overdue day – the bereaved families and survivors of the Hillsborough Disaster have had to wait 27 long years for the full facts of what happened. And it is only due to their tireless bravery in pursuing the truth that we arrived at this momentous verdict.

All families and survivors now have official confirmation of what they always knew was the case, that the Liverpool fans were utterly blameless in the disaster that unfolded at Hillsborough.”

 

The following day Home Secretary Theresa May MP made a lengthy statement in the House of Commons. The speech can be read here. It included the following:

“The conclusion of the inquests brings to an end an important step since the publication of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report [in 2012]. Thanks to that report and now the determinations of the inquests, we know the ​truth of what happened on that day at Hillsborough.”

“I want to end by saying this. For 27 years, the families and survivors of Hillsborough have fought for justice. They have faced hostility, opposition and obfuscation, and the authorities, which should have been trusted, have laid blame and tried to protect themselves, instead of acting in the public interest.

But the families have never faltered in their pursuit of the truth. Thanks to their actions, they have brought about a proper reinvestigation and a thorough re-evaluation of what happened at Hillsborough. That they have done so is extraordinary. I am sure the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to their courage, determination and resolve. We should also remember those who have, sadly, passed away while still waiting for justice.”

 

So, 26th April 2016 belongs to the family and friends of the 96 and to those who suffered in the crush but somehow survived only to find themselves the object of more than two decades of vilification. At 14-0 the inquests represent a crushing victory for them all in the fight for justice and to ensure the world finally heard the truth about that dark day at Hillsborough.

 

Mark George QC is Head of Chambers at Garden Court North Chambers and was instructed to represent 22 of the bereaved families at the Hillsborough Inquests which concluded on 26th April 2016. This post was originally published on his WordPress.

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