A proposed “Hillsborough law” requiring police forces and public authorities to be open and truthful in legal proceedings, including about their own failures, and that would give bereaved families the same resources as the police to make their case at future inquests is to be presented to parliament.
The 10-minute-rule bill will be introduced by Labour MP Andy Burnham on Wednesday. The public authority (accountability) bill would impose on public authorities and employees a duty to act with “transparency, candour and frankness”. Individual officials would face a fine or maximum two-year term in prison for failing to do so, including for feeding misleading information to the media.
It has been developed following the verdicts of the second inquest into the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, which found that the 96 people who died were unlawfully killed, vindicating their families’ 27-year fight against an alleged cover-up by South Yorkshire police.
The Hillsborough law also proposes that families whose relatives have been killed or seriously injured in the care of the police or other public authority should have funding equal to those bodies for legal representation at subsequent inquests or public inquiries.
The families whose relatives died at the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough had to pay for lawyers themselves, while South Yorkshire police, individual police officers, the South Yorkshire Metropolitan ambulance service, Sheffield city council and other authorities responsible were publicly funded.
The bereaved families could not all afford to pay for lawyers, and ultimately 42 agreed to pay £3,000 each, which funded solicitors and a single barrister to represent all of them at the first inquest, held in Sheffield from November 1990 to March 1991.
The South Yorkshire police case was to deny that its failings had caused the deaths, and instead to allege that the victims themselves, people who had paid to attend the semi-final and support Liverpool, were to blame for misbehaving. The verdict, of accidental death, was never accepted by the families, who campaigned relentlessly for justice before the verdict was finally quashed in December 2012.
Under Theresa May as home secretary, the government did pay for lawyers to represent the families at the new inquests, at a cost of £63.6m for highly experienced firms of solicitors and teams of senior and junior barristers to fight the case that ran from March 2014 to April 2016, the longest-ever heard by a British jury.
The families blamed the lengthening of the inquests on South Yorkshire police and individual officers for again refusing to admit failings and seeking to allege misbehaviour by Liverpool supporters, which led to months of fierce adversarial exchanges in court.
Ultimately the jury determined that the 96 people were unlawfully killed owing to gross negligence manslaughter by the officer in command, Ch Supt David Duckenfield, that South Yorkshire police were culpable of serial failings, and that there was no misbehaviour by supporters that contributed to the dangerous situation.
Afterwards, the families criticised the South Yorkshire police chief constable, David Crompton, who was subsequently sacked by the South Yorkshire police and crime commissioner, Alan Billings, over a press release issued to clarify the position. Crompton’s appeal against his dismissal began in the high court on Tuesday.
Margaret Aspinall, the chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group and whose 18-year-old son James was one of the 96 people killed at Hillsborough, said the families fully support the proposed new law. “We do not want any other families to suffer as we have,” she said. “The police and public bodies must have a duty to tell the truth from the start and bereaved families must have equal funding for lawyers to represent them.”
The bill will realistically be passed into law only if May’s government adopts it. That will become more likely if it is recommended by Sir James Jones, the former bishop of Liverpool, who is working on an official report for May on lessons to be learned from the Hillsborough families’ experiences.
Burnham is expected to tell parliament he is disappointed that the Hillsborough verdict has not already led to broad legal reform, and argue that the proposed law is vital for bereaved families, would promote better public administration and improve confidence in the police.
“The bill fundamentally rebalances the legal and coronial system in favour of ordinary people,” he will say, citing a series of continuing campaigns against injustice. “Until that happens, then the true lesson of Hillsborough will not have been learned.”