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Government stops short of introducing Hillsborough Law in response to report

Bishop James Jones reading Hillsborough report to family members of victims in Liverpool (PA)
Bishop James Jones reading Hillsborough report to family members of victims in Liverpool (PA)

The Government has stopped short of introducing a Hillsborough Law called for by campaigners in its response to a report into the experiences of the bereaved families.

Former bishop of Liverpool the Right Rev James Jones set out 25 learning points in his report The Patronising Disposition of Unaccountable Power, published in November 2017 following inquests into the deaths at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final in Sheffield – where 97 Liverpool FC fans died.

In a response published on Wednesday, the Government said it had signed up to a Hillsborough Charter, pledging to place the public interest above its own reputation, but said a “Hillsborough Law” incorporating a legal duty of candour was not necessary.

In the foreword to the report, Home Secretary James Cleverly and Justice Secretary Alex Chalk acknowledged the response had taken “too long, compounding the agony of the Hillsborough families and survivors”.

The Hillsborough families have suffered multiple injustices and more than 34 years later there can never be too many apologies for what they have been through

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak

They added: “For this we are deeply sorry.”

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: “The Hillsborough families have suffered multiple injustices and more than 34 years later there can never be too many apologies for what they have been through.

“And I want to repeat that apology today and thank the Hillsborough families for their tenacity, patience and courage.”

In his 2017 report, Mr Jones called for the Government to give “full consideration” to a “Hillsborough Law” or Public Authority (Accountability) Bill, which would include a legal duty of candour on public authorities and officials to tell the truth and proactively co-operate with official investigations and inquiries.

But the response stated the Government was “not aware” of any gaps in legislation or clarifications needed that would further encourage a culture of candour among public servants in law.

It is understood the Government believes that adopting the duty of candour would risk “creating conflict and confusion” because of the framework of duties and obligations already developed since the disaster.

In 2021, retired officers Donald Denton and Alan Foster and former force solicitor Peter Metcalf, who were accused of amending statements to minimise the blame on South Yorkshire Police after the tragedy, were acquitted of perverting the course of justice when a judge ruled there was no case to answer.

Mr Justice William Davis said the amended statements were intended for a public inquiry into safety at sports grounds led by Lord Justice Taylor, but that was not a course of public justice.

Flowers and tributes left at the Hillsborough Memorial outside Anfield stadium in Liverpool (PA Wire)
Flowers and tributes left at the Hillsborough Memorial outside Anfield stadium in Liverpool (PA Wire)

In its report, the Government said the families and survivors were “entirely justified” in their frustration with the evasiveness they experienced from public officials.

But it said much had changed in terms of expectations and requirements on public officials since 1989.

It said that “continuing to drive and encourage a culture of candour among public servants” was essential and an important part of the Hillsborough Charter, which Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden had signed on behalf of the Government.

The charter for families bereaved through public tragedy was proposed by Mr Jones in his report, in which he said “substantial change” was needed in the culture of public bodies.

Leaders of public bodies who sign up to the charter commit to place the public interest above their own reputations, approach forms of public scrutiny – including public inquiries and inquests – with candour and avoid seeking to defend the indefensible.

Other organisations which have already signed up to the charter include the National Police Chiefs’ Council, College of Policing, Crown Prosecution Service and Kensington and Chelsea Council, the report said.

The Government response also states that it will consult on expanding the provision of legal aid for inquests following public disasters.

Inquests into the deaths at the match, played between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest on April 15 1989, concluded in 2016 and found that fans were unlawfully killed and errors by the police and ambulance service caused or contributed to their deaths.

The match commander on the day, David Duckenfield, was charged with gross negligence manslaughter in 2017 but he was cleared in 2019 at a retrial, after the jury in his first trial was unable to reach a verdict.