As is usual practice the inquests into the deaths at Hillsborough were opened and adjourned shortly after the disaster. This allowed for the release of bodies for funerals. The inquests would later be resumed for so-called 'mini-inquests'(an unprecedented move) and then the final stage of the inquests. They were to be recorded as the longest inquests in British legal history.
The Coroner's Court
It is important to outline precisely the role of a coroner's court so that people can understand it's place within the legal hierarchy of courts but also that the wide discretionary powers of the coroner are also understood.
The coroner's court differs greatly to other courts. The procedure is not adversarial it is inquisitorial ( the word 'inquest being derived directly from the latin 'inquisito meaning 'inquiry ). The role of the court is to ascertain:
1. Who the deceased was.
2. How, when and where the deceased came by their death.
3. The particulars concerning the death for the purpose of the Registration Acts.
Most importantly to acknowledge is the fact that the Coroner's Court is not about apportioning blame - liability is not a matter for the Coroner's Court. This impinges on the range of verdicts which are possible in the inquest. There is a prescribed list of verdicts from which to choose but the verdict has to be in line with the medical cause of death. That is the theory anyway.
After ninety days of evidence the jury in the Hillsborough Inquests recorded a verdict of ACCIDENTAL DEATH - verdict consistent with the medical cause of death? Hardly. That is the practice. The inquests were to prove possibly the major vehicle for the injustice of Hillsborough. Here is how it happened.
The Mini Inquests
The mini inquests (as they became known ) were unique as normally in controversial deaths inquests are not resumed until the DPP has ruled whether or not there are to be any prosecutions arising out of the death. In the case of Hillsborough however, the Coroner resumed the inquests one year on from the disaster before the DPP had made a ruling. The Coroner indicated that the reason for this was to assist the families by being able to make public limited details. However, families would later realise that their legal representatives ( the Hillsborough Steering Group of solicitors) actively supported and encouraged this phase of the inquests as it assisted them in gaining further information which could lead to them being able to settle survivors claims. In other words the mini inquests suited the solicitors far more than they were beneficial to the bereaved.
The inquests at this stage went along at the rate of approximately eight per day. As one family left by one door another would enter by another. Details of the deceased would be read out together with the blood alcohol reading ( this happened even in the case of a ten year old boy who had been killed ). This emphasis on blood alcohol in every case clearly placed in the mind of the jury that alcohol was a dominant factor. This was grossly unfair as in many cases the actual reading was negative. The pathologist who had carried out the post mortem would also give evidence and a summary of the deceased's movements up to the point of death would be read out. A map would pinpoint any known sightings of the deceased in the pens.
Crucially none of this evidence could be challenged. That was the major factor for allowing the inquests to proceed in this limited fashion. Again the families solicitors had agreed to this situation. Therefore, apart from the fact that Doug Fraser (representing all the families on behalf of the Steering Committee) was outnumbered by nine to one (by other solicitors representing interested parties), he could not challenge any of the evidence that was being given.
It was a ridiculous situation that caused the families great distress. Many were seeing the summary facts surrounding their loved ones for the first time. Moreover they were listening to this information in climate where blood alcohol levels were constantly being referred to. Moreover, they had to travel to Sheffield for these inquests and had to attend court in the Medico-Legal Centre which also houses the city's mortuary where their loved ones had been brought.
The evidence was slanted, one sided and went unchallenged. This phase of the inquests did immeasurable damage. Families were told that the unchallenged issues would be dealt with at the final stage of the inquests but this never happened. Families generally felt betrayed and hurt by the mini-inquests:
That night I felt I had just lost him all over again. I couldn't stop crying thinking about him. They played on our emotions and our illness-it was so cruel.
I came away from the mini-inquest totally distressed and bewildered.
The mini-inquests revived the initial lies about the disaster and gave the media fuel to fan the flames. The one sided evidence was reported in the media in the context of drunkeness and violence. These inquests were carefully orchestrated. Families were policed in and out of the procedure. The West Midlands Police (in charge of the whole operation) might have been wearing their expense account Armani Suits but they didn't fool everyone. They were there for one reason and one reason only - to make sure everything went according to plan - their plan.
The Resumed Inquests (Final Stage)
The Director of Public Prosecutions ruled in September 19990 that there would be no criminal prosecutions arising out of the disaster. In the case of the police he ruled that there was 'insufficient evidence to justify proceedings'. The fact that there were to be no prosecutions meant that the inquests could resume. Families, still smarting from the mini-inquests, now had to put all their hopes into this final phase.
The inquest reopened in November 1990 again in Sheffield but this time in the city's town hall. Once again the families were heavily outnumbered in terms of legal representation. In total there were twelve representatives of interested parties. Of these, six were representing the police compared with one for the 43 families who were represented. Joan McBrien, who had lost her son John represented her families interests having been totally disillusioned with the group representation at the earlier stage. This was a courageous stance from a bereaved mother. She sat at the front of the courts with the lawyers and took on the might of the establishment and went the distance in the marathon of an inquest. Her courage, dignity and perseverance for the truth should not go unrecorded.
It was at this stage that the coroner imposed the 3.15 cut off. What this meant was he would not hear any evidence after 3.15 p.m. on the day on the day of the disaster. His reasoning was that there had to be a cut off at some point and 3.15 was the time that the first ambulance arrived on the pitch and by that time people would have already have received the injuries from which they were to die. The coroner's logic was extremely convenient. This 'cut-off' meant that it ruled any evidence in respect of the emergency response was ruled 'inadmissable'. Families at this stage discussed with their legal representative the possibility of going to the high court to have this decision of the coroner's judicially reviewed. They were advised however, to wait until the end of the inquests and add up all the errors!
Once again the jury were subject to evidence aiming to paint a picture of ticketless, drunken fans. The selective use of evidence was so apparent. Only local residents and Licencees who agreed with the emerging established version of events were called to give evidence. The police used the court to reaffirm their view of the disaster and in some cases to expand upon their opinions of what was wrong with the country as a whole. Superintendent Marshall( the officer who requested that the gate be opened), used the court to liken the crowd on the day of the disaster to 'an army which could not be stopped'. Comparisons were made with the rioting at the World Cup in Italy in 1990 and the Trafalgar Square Anti-Poll Tax demonstration.
Senior Officers were reminded by the coroner that they did not have to answer anything which might be prejudicial. Fans giving evidence were afforded no similar reminder. Indeed fans were treated appallingly. It was a very traumatic time for them. However, they realised the importance of being able to give evidence which stated the facts of what had happened. After all they were the closest to the deceased in the pens. Their evidence was crucial. In any event they were treated in many instances to hostile cross-examination and were clearly made to feel that they were somehow responsible. Many fans left the inquests in a very traumatised state, frustrated by the constraints of the court. Fans would be instructed to appear on a particular day but if proceedings overran they would be told to come back the next day. This made things worse. The fans would have had a taste of how they would be treated and had more time to ponder upon it. This was a needlessly intolerable situation to put traumatised people through:
I went back to Liverpool that night terrified of the next day. I had seen how they had treated [name], trying to catch him out and I thought, "I've got to go through that tomorrow".
I was a witness but I wasn't treated like one with the line of questioning. I felt I had done something wrong.
Their tone was hostile towards me.... It was as though I was a defendant...as if I had to defend myself. That's the way I felt. That shouldn't have been the case.
Survivors were not represented at the inquests. However it might be expected that the barrister representing the families would be supportive of them given their (survivors) support for the families. This was not the case. One survivor who gave evidence highlighted the sense of isolation that this created. He stated:
Even when he [the families' barrister] stood up I still felt that I was on my own. There was no one to represent me. In that situation you are literally on your own and what you say can be manipulated any way they want because you're dealing with professional people.
The survivors generally were treated very shabbily as witnesses. They only had sight of their statements minutes before they went in to give evidence. The statements were then taken from them before they gave evidence. This was in sharp contrast to the police who gave evidence. Without exception they were allowed to have their statements in the witness box. They also had the advantage of legal representation and generally were treated much better. The one common theme that emerged from the survivors' experience of giving evidence was that they felt that they were on trial.
The selective use of evidence and the Coroner's slanted direction meant it should not have come as any surprise when the jury (after 90 days) returned a verdict of ACCIDENTAL DEATH against all the victims. However, the harsh reality of hearing those words uttered led to a highly emotional response from those present in court. Families and survivors were distraught. Some broke down and cried whilst others voiced their anger and disgust. The Coroner's response was to send the jury out and warn those present that when the jury returned if those present repeated the scene then he would 'clear the court' i.e. he was threatening to throw them out of court.
Generally the families felt little animosity towards the jury. The consensus of opinion was that given the coroner's direction they had very little choice. Some families had travelled on a daily basis to Sheffield but heard no evidence in relation to their loved one. The Tootles were one such family. John Glover commented in respect of the Tootle's:
I felt sorry for the Tootle family. I drove them to Sheffield and back all through the Inquests - yet they never heard their son's name [Peter] mentioned. They paid for representation, but what did they get?
Families like the Glovers and the Tootles were not going to give up. They owed too much to their dead sons memories. Together with other families they sought to find a way even when their lawyers told them there was nothing else that they could do.
After the Inquests the families lawyers stated that there was nowhere else for them to go. The lawyers left at the same point as the money ran out. However, good people still exist. For six Hillsborough families, barrister Edward Fitzgerald (now Queens Counsellor) was that good person. He agreed to apply for leave to have the inquest verdict quashed. He was a breath of fresh air. He treated the families with a respect never before afforded them by the Steering Committee of solicitors. John Glover sums it up perfectly:
I felt as though we were in two different countries...two legal systems. In Sheffield we were told not to speak to the barrister and personally I didn't speak to my counsel who I'd paid money to, to represent my family. When we met Ed Fitzgerald [concerning the Judicial Review application] I couldn't believe the way he treated us...I was amazed. He gave us all the attention and really felt sympathy for us.
The application for leave to go for Judicial Review was successful in spite of the fact that it was out of time and the lawyers were not hopeful of it being successful. This in itself was a major victory particularly within the context of Hillsborough. It was the first 'victory' the families had ever had:
I'm overwhelmed. We are over the first hurdle after four years - somebody has listened to us.
John Glover one of the prime movers in the action was in hospital at the time - his illness being related to the stress and sheer physical toll of fighting for justice. He watched it on television:
I remember nearly jumping out of the bed when I saw it on television... I felt that was the turning point.
Sheila Coleman, who had worked on the detailed submission put to the court stated:
The decision is the result of the families' persistence against all odds. They had been told that they were wasting their time. And, remember, neither they nor their lawyers, have had the benefit of legal aid. Even if the verdicts are not eventually quashed, finally someone has listened to the families, and there is now a chance that all the evidence surrounding a disaster which resulted in 96 deaths will be heard in court. Either way there was sufficient concern in the judge's mind to allow the submission a full hearing.
It has to be acknowledged that this was a rare achievement won against considerable odds. It was a good day for the families. It was however, as good as it got. The case for Judicial Review was heard in the High Court during the first week of November 1993. Evidence was put before the two judges to indicate that the inquest had not been a thorough investigation into how the deceased met their deaths. The evidence was powerful. Crucial to the case was the evidence that people had died who could have been saved had they received appropriate treatment in time. The 3.15 cut off time was challenged as families had evidence most notably from forensic pathologist Dr. Iain West, that stated that the deceased could have lived beyond 3.15. This was most apparent in the case of Kevin Williams.
In any event all the evidence was to come to nothing. It was clear from the first day that the judges favoured those opposing the case. They made this very obvious by being very critical of the families barrister whilst at the same time being overly courteous to those representing the Coroner and the Ambulance Service. They were to conclude that far from being criticised for how he conducted the interviews, on the contrary the Coroner's behaviour (in their opinion) had been 'exemplary'. In respect of the 3.15 cut-off, Lord Justice McCowan stated:
I see no fault in the coroner in this matter. He made a full inquiry... In my judgement it would not be right to quash the verdicts and order a new inquest on the strength of these allegations made against the investigating police officers.
The 'allegations' to which he was referring was the evidence put forward in respect of Kevin Williams that West Midlands Police had suppressed the true evidence in relation to the circumstances leading to his death. Labelling hard evidence as 'allegations' was a convenient way to dismiss the facts.
Once again the families had been beaten. By now they were coming to realise that they were up against the system and that issues of truth and justice had little to do with the law. As John Glover stated:
...they'd already made up their minds. From day one they knew they were going to throw us out.
John highlighted the general indifference shown by the judges by the fact that they couldn't even get the facts right:
I couldn't believe my ears when the judge began his summing up. He actually stated that it had been a semi-final between Liverpool and Sheffield Wednesday. Given all the publicity surrounding Hillsborough, I was astonished that he couldn't even get the teams right...96 people had died and these judges didn't even know what teams were playing.
The period after this defeat was a very difficult one for the families. It seemed like there was nowhere for them to go. Many of them became very depressed. However, as hard as it was they would go on to fight another day, justice being their ultimate goal.