Families whose relatives died due to Covid-19 have called on the government to urgently introduce the “Hillsborough law”, which would require public authorities to be proactively truthful in investigations, court proceedings and inquiries.
The legal duty would oblige ministers, government departments and advisers to have a “duty of candour” towards the forthcoming public inquiry into how and why more than 150,000 people have died in the pandemic.
The proposed law would also ensure that bereaved families have adequate public funding for lawyers to represent them at an inquiry or inquest into the death of their relatives – putting them on a par with legal teams representing the authorities, which are publicly funded.
On Wednesday, a judge ruled there was no legal case to answer for two former South Yorkshire police officers and the force’s former solicitor on charges of perverting the course of justice. They were alleged to have changed 68 officers’ statements prepared for Lord Justice Taylor’s public inquiry into the Hillsborough disaster in order to withhold important evidence and criticisms of the police operation.
Mr Justice William Davis ruled that as it was not a statutory public inquiry, at which evidence is given on oath, it was not a “course of public justice” that could be perverted.
The “Hillsborough law” reforms were originally proposed by lawyers who represented families of the 96 people unlawfully killed at Hillsborough in 1989, who fought a long battle to establish the truth about the disaster and to get accountability from those responsible. With no legal aid available for bereaved people at inquests, the Hillsborough families who could afford to, paid £3,000 each for a single barrister to represent them at the 1990-91 inquest. He was outnumbered by barristers for South Yorkshire police, Sheffield city council, South Yorkshire Metropolitan ambulance service and other public and police organisations.
The families were forced to contest a narrative advanced by the South Yorkshire police that blamed the victims, supporters of Liverpool football club, for the disaster, rather than admit responsibility. The first inquest jury reached a verdict of accidental death, which the families campaigned to overturn for 21 years until it was finally quashed in 2012. At the new inquests, which began in 2014, the families were given exceptional funding by Theresa May’s Home Office for a large team of solicitors and barristers, and in 2016 the jury delivered a verdict of unlawful killing, and exonerated the Liverpool supporters from any blame.
Renewed calls for the urgent introduction of the law have followed the collapse on Wednesday of the criminal prosecution against two former South Yorkshire police officers and the force’s ex-lawyer. At the trial, senior legal figures argued for the defence that there was no duty of candour, to tell the whole truth, at the official inquiry by Lord Justice Taylor into the disaster.
Jo Goodman, whose father Stuart, 72, died due to Covid-19 last April and who co-founded the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, said the families support the introduction of the Hillsborough law in time for the public inquiry into the pandemic, which Boris Johnson has said will start next year.
“Families bereaved by Covid-19 are terrified at the prospect of having to wait decades for answers like those who lost loved ones at Hillsborough and we support their call entirely,” Goodman said.
“It is only by improving the transparency and accountability for deaths that need a public inquiry or inquest that we can reduce the struggle families have to go through to get answers, often adding to the trauma of going through a potentially preventable and often sudden loss.”
The group is represented by solicitor Elkan Abrahamson and barrister Pete Weatherby QC, who represented 22 bereaved families at the 2014-16 Hillsborough inquests, and have been instrumental in drafting and proposing the Hillsborough law.
Andy Burnham, now the mayor of Greater Manchester, introduced a draft bill, with cross-party support, when he was still an MP in March 2017. Its progress was stalled by the general election of June 2017, and Johnson’s government has made no moves to enact it.
In August a working group of the law reform organisation Justice, which included the 2014-16 Hillsborough inquest coroner, Sir John Goldring, and other senior lawyers, recommended that a statutory duty of candour be introduced, and that bereaved people and survivors are “placed at the heart of the process”.
Inquest, a charity that supports families after deaths due to potential state failures, has also called for the reforms, to “level the playing field at inquests”.
Deborah Coles, the director of Inquest, said: “There is a culture of delay, denial and defensiveness on the part of state bodies to evade scrutiny and accountability after state-related deaths. This is why Hillsborough law is so needed, to address both the duty of candour and equality of arms and remove the cloak of protection.”