Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA
The city of Liverpool hosted some landmark days of vindication for the families of the 97 people unlawfully killed at Hillsborough as their long, agonising legal fight finally turned towards justice, but more recent years have been bleak and difficult.
Given that the government took six years to respond to the 2017 report it commissioned from James Jones, the former bishop of Liverpool, aimed at learning lessons from the Hillsborough scandal, the day of publication was always likely to fall into the more recent series of letdowns rather than celebrations.
The family members who gathered at a Home Office building near the Liverpool waterside to be told of the government’s measures responded with the resolve that has formed the indomitable core of their 34-year cause. Margaret Aspinall – whose son James, 18, was one of the 97 people killed at the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest on 15 April 1989 – called for the full implementation of the families’ “Hillsborough law” proposals.
“What have we got today?” she asked. “Ninety-seven innocent people were unlawfully killed and not one person has been held accountable. This is totally disappointing: we need [the] Hillsborough law.”
Charlotte Hennessy, who was six when her father, Jimmy, 27, died at Hillsborough, said: “We never want anybody to go through what we went through, and this cannot be the end.”
The Hillsborough law was developed after the 2016 verdict of the new inquest into how the terrible overcrowding and lethal crush were caused at the stadium. The jury rejected the campaign of lies by South Yorkshire police, who had sought to blame the victims for the disaster rather than take responsibility for its own monumental failings.
Twenty-seven years after the disaster, and 25 after the first inquest verdict of accidental death, the jury determined that the 97 were unlawfully killed due to gross negligence manslaughter by the South Yorkshire police officer in command, Ch Supt David Duckenfield, and that the supporters of Liverpool were blameless.
The Hillsborough law proposals would introduce a legally enforceable, positive “duty of candour” for police and all public authorities to assist investigations into a major incident, and equal public funding for legal representation of bereaved families at inquiries and inquests.
The draft law is aimed at ensuring that other people do not suffer police cover-ups, disdain and appalling mistreatment, as the Hillsborough families did, and they have relentlessly impressed on the government their commitment to this as a positive legacy from their nightmare struggle.
The government accompanied its response to Jones’s report with a somewhat abject apology for having taken so long, and rejected the Hillsborough law proposals. Their argument is that a duty of candour is now included in police officers’ codes of conduct, and on increasing legal aid funding for inquests, the government said only that it will consult.
The main measure is that the government has signed the “Charter for Families Bereaved through Public Tragedy” proposed by Jones, adopting it completely and verbatim, with its commitments that ministries will be open and transparent, fully and honestly assist investigations following public tragedies, and “not knowingly mislead the public or the media”.
As the families were digesting this, Boris Johnson was giving evidence to the Covid inquiry.
Jones’s aspiration was to prompt a genuine change of culture, but it is un clear how government departments will follow through with the commitment to openness and transparency to which they have newly signed. The families have long argued that the duty of candour needs legal force, and Elkan Abrahamson, who represented 22 families at the 2014-16 inquests, said the new measure “merely provides for a meaningless code of conduct for the police”.
The wintry air of disappointment was another contrast with the victories Liverpool has heralded since the breakthrough in 2009 at a packed Anfield memorial on the 20th anniversary of the disaster. There the crowd’s protests and chants for justice strengthened the resolve of then Labour minister Andy Burnham to try to address the legal deadlock.
On 12 September 2012 the fruits of the process Burnham started, the report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel (HIP), chaired by Jones, was published at Liverpool Cathedral. Remembered as “truth day” by campaigners, it led to the quashing of the first inquest. After the April 2016 inquest verdict, a vigil was held in Liverpool, with the words “truth” and “justice” illuminated on the front of St George’s Hall.
But since those peaks, and Jones’s 2017 report, the families have come to feel the disappointment in the justice system again. Duckenfield was acquitted in 2019 on a criminal charge of gross negligence manslaughter, and three former officers charged with perverting the course of public justice over the changing of police statements were acquitted in 2021 after the judge decided there was no basis for the charges.
That left families contemplating the outcome of a 32-year legal process: nobody guilty of any offence for the unlawful killing of 97 people at a football match, and no police officer held accountable for the campaign of lies that followed.
Keir Starmer has said that Labour is committed to introducing the Hillsborough law if elected, and so the families have resolved to keep making their case and working towards another day of vindication in Liverpool.