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When justice fails

Updated: Dec 3, 2021

On 15 April 1989, a 15 year old me decided to take a break from exam revision and watch BBC Grandstand to keep an eye on the two FA Cup semi-final scores as they came in. Three years earlier, I had attended the first all-Merseyside final at Wembley, and was hoping for a repeat.

Had it not been for personal circumstances, I could very well have been at Hillsborough football stadium that day. I have counted my blessings ever since, yet that day, and the 32 years that followed, have left an indelible mark on my life, as it has on the lives of the people of Merseyside and many beyond.

As kick off approached, a large crowd of Liverpool fans, delayed by roadworks on the M62, crowded outside the Leppings Lane turnstiles. The police officer in charge that day, David Duckenfield, gave the order to open an exit gate allowing 2000 Liverpool fans into a tunnel and onto already full terraces. The resulting crush led to 96 men, women and children, aged from 10 to 67, losing their lives in one of the worst health and safety-related disasters of my lifetime.

Speaking on BBC Radio Two Sports Report later that day, reporter Peter Jones summed up the mood.

"The biggest irony", he said, "is that the sun is shining now, and Hillsborough's quiet and over there to the left are the green Yorkshire hills, and who would've known that people would die here in the stadium this afternoon. I don't necessarily want to reflect on Heysel, but I was there that night, broadcasting with Emlyn Hughes, and he was sitting behind me this afternoon, and after half an hour of watching stretchers going out and oxygen cylinders being brought in and sirens screaming, he touched me on the shoulder and said 'I can't take anymore', and Emlyn Hughes left.

"The gymnasium here, at Hillsborough, is being used as a mortuary for the dead, and at this moment stewards have got little paper bags, and they're gathering up the personal belongings of the spectators. And there are red and white scarves of Liverpool, and red and white bobble hats of Liverpool, and red and white rosettes of Liverpool, and nothing else. And the sun shines now."

That day, the lies started. The authorities and officials went into self-preservation mode. Duckenfield told people in the media that the gate had been forced by Liverpool fans. One alleged 'news'paper, which out of principle will remain unnamed, stated on its front page, along with other falsehoods, that the fans had urinated on police officers.

The country was in shock. Merseyside was in shock. A few days later I, along with tens of thousands of others, attended Anfield as it became a shrine to those 96 innocent victims. The ground was in silence, apart from quiet sobbing, the pitch and Kop terrace full of flowers, scarves and flags of Liverpool Football Club. That is a moment that I will never ever forget, but also one I am glad I was privileged to witness. A community as one. A community in grief.

Little did we know, that it would take 32 years before the law of this land had finished failing the victims, their families and that community.

In January 1990, a judicial inquiry led by Lord Justice Taylor concluded that the failure to close off the tunnel was "a blunder of the first magnitude", and recommended all seater stadia for clubs in the top two tiers. Later that year, the Director of Public Prosecutions ruled out any criminal charges against Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield City Council, or the stadium engineers.

In 1991, the Coroner Dr Stefan Popper ruled out all evidence relating to fans deaths after 3.15pm, as, he said, by then "the damage had been done."

In March 1993, the 96th victim, Tony Bland passed away, having been in a vegetative state since the disaster. Later that year, Jimmy McGovern's drama-documentary on the disaster claimed people who died were still alive after 3.15pm. This was later found to be true.

Seven years later, the Hillsborough Families Support Group failed in a private prosecution of Duckenfield, and his deputy Bernard Murray. Murray was acquitted by a jury, and they failed to reach a verdict over Duckenfield. The judge stated that he could never face a retrial.

In April 2009, fans heckled the then Culture Secretary Andy Burnham at the 20th anniversary memorial event demanding justice. A petition of Parliament led to the full disclosure of over 300,000 documents on the disaster. The following year, the Hillsborough Independent Panel was established to review this evidence.

They reported in September 2012, being highly critical of the emergency response and of senior officers on duty that day. Later that year, the High Court quashed the original inquests, ordering new inquests. A new police inquiry into the disaster started.

The new inquests opened in March 2014, and lasted two years. During the Inquests, Duckenfield admitted that his failure to close the tunnel "was the direct cause of the deaths of 96 people."

In April 2016, the Hillsborough Inquests concluded that the 96 football fans who died at Hillsborough died unlawfully. The following year, Duckenfield was charged with the manslaughter of 95 football fans (excluding Tony Bland as he died too long after the disaster). Five others faced charges too, with Sheffield Wednesday club secretary Graham Mackrell eventually becoming the only one found guilty, of health and safety offences relating to the turnstiles. Then others charged were police officers and a police solicitor, charged with either misconduct in a public office or with perverting the course of justice. Over the following years, all five were found not guilty, including the final three this week.

The British legal system has failed to bring justice against anyone responsible for the deaths of 96 innocent people - 96 people whose only crime was to go and support their football team.

I hope that lessons from this major failure over three decades, of the British legal system to bring swift and appropriate justice, are made. The Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg stated in the Commons yesterday that nobody being held to account for the Hillsborough disaster was "the greatest scandal of British policing of our lifetimes".

The law needs to change to prevent something like this ever happening again. The 96 victims and their families deserve nothing less. The families deserve credit and respect for the way they have acted over the past three decades. They can take hope and pride in their actions and must always remember the actual facts that came out of the Hillsborough Inquests:

  • 96 people died in the disaster

  • There were serious errors in the police planning process

  • There were serious errors made by the police relating to the turnstiles

  • There were serious errors relating to police commanders actions and decisions

  • There were 96 cases of unlawful killing

  • The behaviour of football supporters did NOT cause any danger

  • Stadium design contributed to the disaster

  • Sheffield Wednesday planning errors occurred.

  • Sheffield Wednesday staff were not at fault

  • Stadium engineers could have done more

  • There were serious errors in the police response to the disaster, both on the day and afterwards

  • There were serious errors relating to ambulance response.

Andy Burnham, now Mayor of Greater Manchester, tweeted this week that "failing to reach a resolution after 32 years is all the proof needed that major reform is required. As a minimum, we need two things: first, parity of legal funding for bereaved families at inquests where public bodies are involved; second, a legal duty of candour on officials."

I could not agree more.

I have wanted to write about the injustice of Hillsborough for many years. Now legal cases are over, I finally can. I wanted to write about justice being reached. That I cannot.

I have nothing but heartfelt praise and respect for the families of the 96, whose lives have been ruined by events of the last 32 years.

I do not have such respect for the public officials and the legal system that failed them and the 96.

UPDATE JULY 2021: A Coroner has ruled that Andrew Devine, 55, who was seriously injured in the Hillsborough Disaster, and who has recently passed away is the 97th victim of the disaster. All mentions of 96 above now include him, the 97th. Rest in Peace Andrew.


Remembering the 97 victims of the Hillsborough Football Stadium Disaster, 15 April 1989:

Adam Edward Spearritt, 14.

Alan Johnston, 29.

Alan McGlone, 28.

Andrew Mark Brookes, 26.

Andrew Devine, 55.

Anthony Bland, 22.

Anthony Peter Kelly, 29.

Arthur Horrocks, 41.

Barry Glover, 27.

Barry Sidney Bennett, 26.

Brian Christopher Matthews, 38.

Carl William Rimmer, 21.

Carl Brown, 18.

Carl Darren Hewitt, 17.

Carl David Lewis, 18.

Christine Anne Jones, 27.

Christopher James Traynor, 26.

Christopher Barry Devonside, 18.

Christopher Edwards, 29.

Colin Wafer, 19.

Colin Andrew Hugh William Sefton, 23.

Colin Mark Ashcroft, 19.

David William Birtle, 22.

David George Rimmer, 38.

David Hawley, 39.

David John Benson, 22.

David Leonard Thomas, 23.

David William Mather, 19.

Derrick George Godwin, 24.

Eric Hankin, 33.

Eric George Hughes, 42.

Francis Joseph McAllister, 27.

Gary Christopher Church, 19.

Gary Collins, 22.

Gary Harrison, 27.

Gary Philip Jones, 18.

Gerard Bernard Patrick Baron, 67.

Gordon Rodney Horn, 20.

Graham John Roberts, 24.

Graham John Wright, 17.

Henry Charles Rogers, 17.

Henry Thomas Burke, 47.

Ian David Whelan, 19.

Ian Thomas Glover, 20.

Inger Shah, 38.

James Gary Aspinall, 18.

James Philip Delaney, 19.

James Robert Hennessy, 29.

John Alfred Anderson, 62.

John McBrien, 18.

Jonathon Owens, 18.

Jon-Paul Gilhooley, 10.

Joseph Clark, 29.

Joseph Daniel McCarthy,

Keith McGrath, 17.

Kester Roger Marcus Ball, 16.

Kevin Daniel Williams, 15.

Kevin Tyrrell, 15.

Lee Nicol, 14.

Marian Hazel McCabe, 21.

Martin Kevin Traynor, 16.

Martin Kenneth Wild, 29.

Michael David Kelly, 38.

Nicholas Peter Joynes, 27.

Nicholas Michael Hewitt, 16.

Patrick John Thompson, 35.

Paula Ann Smith, 26.

Paul Anthony Hewitson, 26.

Paul David Brady, 21.

Paul Brian Murray, 14.

Paul Clark, 18.

Paul William Carlile, 19.

Peter Andrew Harrison, 15.

Peter Andrew Burkett, 24.

Peter Francis Tootle, 21.

Peter McDonnell, 21.

Peter Reuben Thompson, 30.

Philip Hammond, 14.

Philip John Steele, 15.

Raymond Thomas Chapman, 50.

Richard Jones, 25.

Roy Harry Hamilton, 33.

Sarah Louise Hicks, 19.

Simon Bell, 17.

Stephen Paul Copoc, 20.

Stephen Francis Harrison, 31.

Stephen Francis O’Neill, 17.

Steven Joseph Robinson, 17.

David Steven Brown, 25.

Stuart Paul William Thompson, 17.

Thomas Anthony Howard Jnr, 14.

Thomas Howard, 39.

Thomas Steven Fox, 21.

Tracey Elizabeth Cox, 23.

Victoria Jane Hicks, 15.

Vincent Michael Fitzsimmons, 34.

William Roy Pemberton, 23.


Rest in Peace.


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