The Hillsborough inquest took two years and a million pages of evidence. Two of the lawyers involved explain that, despite the scale of the task, they were determined to put the deceased and their families at the heart of the case. This article is co-written by Marcia Willis Stewart and Patrick Roche.
- Marcia Willis Stewart is a managing partner at Birnberg Peirce & Partners and was the lead lawyer representing the families of 77 of the 96.
- Patrick Roche is a barrister at Garden Court Chambers and led one of the teams instructed by BPP.
- Both Marcia and Patrick are members of Inquest Lawyers Group.
In December 2012, the High Court quashed the verdicts of the original inquests into the deaths of 96 people at Hillsborough. It ordered fresh inquests into those deaths and directed that the hearing should take place as soon as practicable. While the order for an early hearing was plainly the right response to the pleas from the families for an early hearing after 23 years of frustration, it presented the lawyers involved with unprecedented challenges in ensuring that the families could be effectively represented. The hearing would be the longest case ever tried by a jury and take over two years. The documentary evidence consisted of over a million pages.
The sheer size of the task would have been an enormous challenge, even if the hearing had not been expedited. Birnberg Peirce acted for 77 families and over 150 clients. This required putting together and organising a sizeable team of solicitors and counsel to represent them. We split them into seven teams of three to four barristers and two solicitors/case workers and paralegals, each representing about 10 families. Each team also focused on a particular area of the evidence, with topics ranging from stadium safety to different aspects of policing, through to the emergency responses.
From the outset, it became apparent that those we represented had never had the opportunity to tell their stories to a lawyer. The first crucial hurdle for the legal team was gaining their trust after 23 years of total frustration in their campaign for justice. Counsel and solicitors from the Birnbergs team sat down with each family to hear their accounts and to discuss what they wanted from the inquests and how we could achieve it
It was critical that there were no significant conflicts between our families or those represented by the other teams of lawyers. Within the Birnbergs team, regular liaison between the leaders of the teams and regular conferences, combined with periodic meetings of all our clients, helped us to work collaboratively towards our common goals. We also worked closely with the teams representing the other families to ensure that we were pursuing our common objectives in ways that complemented each other. While differences of approach inevitably emerged from time to time, the trust between the teams meant that they did not disturb the relationship that had been established.
From an early stage we discussed the format of the inquests with the coroner’s team. We successfully proposed that, after the coroner’s opening, the jury should hear a pen portrait for each of the deceased, read by a member of their family. The coroner accepted our submission that this would put the families at the heart of the inquests, and demonstrate the difference between these inquests and the original inquests. We believe that this procedure should be extended to other inquests where the court often hears little or nothing about the personality of the deceased.
The pathology reports from 1989 had been hastily prepared and were of limited value. When the original inquests were quashed, the Administrative Court accepted that the 3.15pm cut-off time for evidence in the original inquests was seriously flawed, since it was based on the erroneous assumption that all the deceased were dead or dying by that time. As a consequence, the individual circumstances of each death had never been explored. The evidence on this topic would take eight months.
As the tragedy happened at an FA Cup semi-final, we had access to a lot of film footage and spent many hours watching audio visual footage with the Hillsborough families and the police to try to fill in gaps and identify new witnesses. In many cases, this was successful and, as a result, we were able to obtain vital new information to present at the inquest.
The court also heard extensive expert evidence from both pathologists and intensivists (critical care doctors), giving evidence together, as to the medical causes of death and survivability. The movements of each victim were traced through witness accounts and by painstaking examination of audio visual footage taken on the day. Often this revealed for the first time the exact circumstances of death and sometimes the identity of those who had tried to help or care for the deceased in their last moments. This opportunity for families to find out how their loved ones died was hugely important to them.
This evidence was also crucial in enabling the jury to conclude that the failures of South Yorkshire Police SYP and the South Yorkshire Ambulance Service in responding to the emergency probably caused or contributed to the loss of lives.
In April 2016, the jury concluded that 96 people had been unlawfully killed and that fans had not contributed to the disaster. They also found that the failures of South Yorkshire Police, the host football club Sheffield Wednesday, the architects Eastwood and Partners, and the South Yorkshire Metropolitan Ambulance Service had all cost lives.
The outcome – albeit coming many years too late – clearly demonstrated the efficacy of a rigorous Article 2 inquest and the ability of a jury to grasp complex issues and deliver a carefully crafted and thorough set of conclusions. The inquests also demonstrated the necessity for families to have equality of representation and of access to their own pathological experts. The conclusions entirely vindicated the campaign by the families over 27 years. If the lessons from these inquests are learnt, there is an opportunity not simply to achieve Justice for the 96 but for other bereaved families in the future.