The Hillsborough inquests took twice as long as they should have because of the way barristers representing match commander David Duckenfield and South Yorkshire Police’s legal team behaved, lawyers for the victims’ families have suggested.
Speaking at a public lecture at the University of Sheffield, Mark George QC said South Yorkshire Police’s legal representatives had ‘piggybacked on aggressive questioning’ on behalf of the match commanders including Mr Duckenfield that had relied on repeating discredited claims that the fans had responsibility for the disaster occurring.
He said this approach had been taken in spite of a 2012 apology by South Yorkshire Police chief constable David Crompton in which he apologised both for the way police had lost control on the day of the disaster and ‘the disgraceful lies’ that were told in the aftermath of it in an attempt to blame the supporters.
Mr George said despite that apology and legal calls for the inquests to be conducted in non-adversarial fashion, lawyers acting on behalf of South Yorkshire Police had taken a different approach - contributing to the inquests lasting over two years.
“The chief constable has made that statement. But during the inquests, they piggybacked on aggressive questions on behalf of the match commanders. I’m not saying they took the lead role in trying to denigrate the fans but they joined in - in complete denial of the apology of Mr Crompton.”
Mr George said lawyers representing the Hillsborough families had asked the coroner if the jury could be told about the police apology of 2012, but this was rejected.
He said lawyers for the families are now calling for the introduction of a ‘Hillsborough Law’ - giving public authorities such as the police a ‘duty of candour’ to accept blame when they have made mistakes and prevent future cover-ups.
Mr George said: “What turned Hillsborough from disaster into outrage was the institutional denial that kicked in. Instead of accepting blame and saying we got this wrong horribly, what the families found was the police dug in, the ambulance service dug in, the football club dug in.
“The police were blaming the fans, the ambulance service was blaming the fans, the ambulance service blamed the club and the club blamed various bodies.
“What we have proposed is that public authorities but also private institutions such as football clubs should be subject to a duty of candour so that rather going into defensive mode and saying ‘not out fault’, they would have a duty to accept blame is it is right to do so.”
He said: “These inquests could have been done in half the time if it wasn’t for the attitude of the police and ambulance service.
“That is why we are saying this needs to be stopped. These organisations went into defensive mode.
“If there was any such disaster in future, there would be no opportunity for the public bodies involved to deny their responsibility in the way that happened at Hillsborough.”
His comments were also echoed by fellow barrister Brenda Campbell.
She said: “When the new inquests began, they started off from the point that hooliganism had played no part, they started from the point the deceased were in no way responsible for their own deaths.
“But happened thereafter is lawyers on behalf of the chief constable and David Duckenfield missed no opportunity to peddle the line that the fans were somehow to blame.
“But what it meant was the issues of ticketlessness, drunkenness, lateness and poor behaviour have been explored in full in the course of these inquests. Nobody can say the jury didn’t hear it, consider it and utterly and totally reject it.
“The inquests were prolonged at least double in length by virtue of the types of questions that were posed and the families had to sit through and listen to it.”
Following the inquest verdicts, South Yorkshire Police released a statement saying their approach to the inquests had been ‘about establishing the facts’.
It stated: “The intention throughout these proceedings has been to assist the jury understand the facts. We have never sought, at any stage, to defend the failures of SYP or its officers. Nevertheless, these failures had to be put into the context of other contributory factors. In other words, where do the failings of SYP stand in the overall picture?
“We are sorry if our approach has been perceived as at odds with our earlier apology, this was certainly not our intention.”
These comments resulted in the suspension of Mr Crompton, who is currently involved in legal proceedings against the decision to remove him from his job.
Mr George said that on the day of disaster, 10,100 people were expected to go through just seven turnstiles to the Leppings Lane terraces and crowd control measures used at previous semi-finals at Hillsborough were not deployed, leading to a major build-up of fans from around 45 minutes prior to the 3pm kick-off.
He said the inquest had heard that while the central areas behind the goal known as Pens 3 and 4 - where all the people who died ended up - were full, other parts of the terraces were relatively empty.
“Expert evidence was given to show that the number of people inside the ground at 3pm didn’t exceed the number of tickets issed for the day. It wasn’t too many people on the terrace, it was too many people in the wrong places,” he said.
Mr George said the build-up of fans outside the ground led to the opening of Exit Gate C eight minutes before kick-off due to fears people could be crushed to death outside the turnstiles.
Around 2,000 people went through Gate C but no attempts were made or information given to them not to go into the central pens which were already over-crowded.
He said: “There was strong evidence at the inquest that in the previous year when the central pens were full they had closed the gates by putting a few bobbies across the mouth of the gates and saying ‘It’s too full’.
“That didn’t happen in 1989. Basically, people went straight down the tunnel and that led to the crush in the pens.”
Mr George said: “I just want to deal with a myth that has grown around this and surprise, surprise was still being peddled by South Yorkshire Police officers giving evidence.
“Their version was that by around 1.30pm, people were already starting to come into the ground. Some of their witness statements referred to family groups with children and older people coming in as if they were going to a picnic.
“The account the police gave was the disaster was caused when late on, getting up to 3pm, a lot of young drunk fans without tickets poured into the ground, rushed down the tunnel and crushed their friends and colleagues who had been there for one-and-a-half hours. That was completely and utterly wrong.
“Between one-quarter and one-third of those who died got into the ground after Gate C was opened at 2.52pm.
“Death that day was random and didn’t conform to the idea the police had.”
He said the Lord Justice Taylor report of 1989 made it clear police had lost control on the day and the supporters were not to blame.
But Mr George said the original inquests overturned that view.
He said: “All the evidence they had put to Lord Taylor was redeployed - statements in which officers blamed the fans, said many didn’t have tickets, were drunk, that large numbers turned up very late completely overwhelming the police.
“The video evidence showed the build up of the crowd was significant by 2.15pm. By 2.30pm, serious measures needed to be taken. One was to delay the kick off.
“At the time of the first inquests, many of the families unrepresented by any lawyers had very little to go on. There was no great surprise the jury found the deaths were accidental - something that infuriated the families.
“The one thing they knew was their loved ones didn’t die in an accident. This was completely foreseeable - reports had highlighted the dangers even before the pens were put in.”
Mr George said the new inquests were a landmark moment for the families of those who died.
He said: “It is hard to explain how important this case was for these people who had lost loved ones and spent 25 years defending their reputation, their own reputations and the reputation of the city of Liverpool.
“They reacted to the new inquests in different ways - we had some families who never came to a day presumably because they couldn’t face it. We had other families who didn’t miss one day over more than two years.”
Brenda Campbell said: “Until the inquests in 2014, in many ways the families were the families of the 96. These inquests started with three weeks of pen portraits in which the families read out a few pages uin which they tried to establish who their loved one was.
“It was intensely emotional for them, it was intensely emotional for everyone in court.
“One of the most shocking things was they each came away saying nobody had ever asked us before about Christopher or Kevin or Joe. Nobody has ever asked what he meant to me. The families for 27 years didn’t have the opportunity to grieve for their loved one - for 27 years they were defending, protecting and fighting.”
She spoke about representing the family of one of the victim’s - 21-year-old Sheffield University student Joe McCarthy.
She said his parents had been on holiday in Turkey at the time of the disaster and by the time they managed to get to Sheffield several days later found a post-mortem had been carried out without their consent, their son had been tested for his blood-alcohol levels and had his criminal record checked to ‘see if there was anything salacious that could be used to see if could be suggested he was in any way responsible’.
She said: “The Hillsborough families never expected to know each other, never wanted to know each other. But from the night they started to come across the Snake Pass to Sheffield because their loved one hadn’t made it home, they were together.”
Brenda said that she had represented Theresa Arrowsmith, whose brothers Chris, aged 26 and Kevin, aged 16, were among those who died.
She described how the family were initially told the boys were fine and heading back home on a supporters’ coach. But their seats were empty when the coach and arrived and she headed to Sheffield.
They went to Sheffield and were asked to check local hospitals, before going back to the stadium where the bodies of the dead were being kept in the gym
She said: “Eventually they came back to the stadium where they queued up outside the gym. They were led through the door and told to look at a screen, which people were still pinning Polaroid pictures of dead people to. Those pictures were unrecognisable in many ways.
“They were told to look through them and see if they could find the brothers. With the first look, they couldn’t recognise anyone. They were told to look again.
“They thought perhaps one was Chris. They later found out Chris had his ID on him all the time - the police knew his identity and could have saved them the pain.
“They were brought into an area of the gym screened off. They were asked to identify their loved ones. Without a moment, they were sped off and a statement taken - how much did their loved one drink? How much did they really drink? How much had they drunk that day? They were told ‘no you can’t have their possessions, no you can’t take the body home’.”
Mr George said victims’ families and survivors who had been in the crowd were particularly anxious about one the questions the jury had to consider about whether the fans had any blame in the disaster.
He said: “If the jury answered in a particular way, it could have been blaming people who had seen their best friends crushed to death.
“When it came to the conclusions, the jury answered that they did consider the 96 were unlawfully killed and completely exonerated the fans from any blame in the disaster.
“The last day was extraordinary - the outpouring of emotion from people invested in this process for as long as they had been. It is something I have never experienced in 40 years as a barrister and I’m sure I won’t do again in the remaining years of my career.”
Mr George said it may be difficult to define how ongoing criminal investigations into the events of Hillsborough and the alleged cover-up that followed can be judged as successful.
He said: “One thing I did get very strongly was there was no sense of wanting revenge by the families.
“Many of them probably feel vindicated simply by the inquest jury verdicts.
“If there are convictions, there won’t be any sense of jubilation.
“Many of the families would say they have had justice and anything that comes now is a bonus. But we do want to see people being held to account.”