Hillsborough inquests: Michael Mansfield on 'far-reaching consequences'

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionMichael Mansfield QC on how the Hillsborough Inquests could be a model for dealing with future disasters

Leading barrister Michael Mansfield QC, who represented most of the victims' families at the Hillsborough Inquests, has called for the creation of a permanent commission scrutinising how the police and other agencies handle crime scenes. Here he writes how the precedent of the inquests could have far-reaching consequences for the investigation of future disasters.

One of the unusual features of these inquests has been the way the friends and relatives of the deceased have been accorded a central status, as required by the European Court of Human Rights.

So often in the past, coroners have barely paid lip service to the families, who mostly feel totally at sea and marginalised.

Two years ago the new Hillsborough Inquests commenced with several weeks of evidence from each of the families of the 96 victims who described the character and background of the loved one who had died.

Each account was different yet had the same impact. A life sorely missed, a memory never to be erased, a desire for justice at all costs - a compelling and exhausting narrative showing the power of the human spirit.

Image copyright Hillsborough inquests
Image caption The crush at a 1989 game in Sheffield Wednesday's stadium led to the deaths of 96 people

These inquests constitute the longest jury hearing in British legal history. They were brought about by a unique process that provides a useful model for the future.

There were years of repeated failures to uncover the truth about the disaster and different avenues pursued through the judicial system clearly failed the families.

A fresh approach was devised when, in January 2010, the Hillsborough Independent Panel (HIP) was established with powers to obtain and collate all documents relating to the disaster. The crucial directive was to assess what light was cast by these documents upon the known circumstances. This took the exercise beyond mere assemblage into the field of analysis.

The Hillsborough Inquests

Five myths rejected by the jury

Hillsborough: What's next?

Police chief's role in the disaster

The 96 who died

What has been overlooked, except by a few, is the precedent set by this sequence of events.

In short, the need for some kind of permanent and independent oversight that scrutinises the decisions and actions of state agencies investigating potential crime scenes.

I favour the establishment of a permanent body akin to a commission to perform this role, with an oversight remit that extends beyond disasters and encompasses all major incidents involving the loss of life.

Image copyright WPA Pool
Image caption The Hillsborough Independent Panel published its findings in September 2012

This was considered too ambitious by former justice minister Lord Michael Wills, who felt that a mechanism centred on one person and focussed on events similar to Hillsborough might attract more support.

Hence the Disasters Bill put forward in the Commons by Maria Eagle MP in 2015, and put down in the Lords for a second reading this year by Lord Wills.

In essence, it envisages the appointment of a single permanent independent advocate to represent the interests of the bereaved from the beginning in major disasters like the one at Hillsborough.

The oversight task will ensure the various agencies carry out their obligations expeditiously, efficiently and judiciously, keeping the families informed at all times.

This has already attracted widespread cross-party support.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Relatives embrace after the inquests' jury delivered its conclusions on Tuesday

At the core of this exercise will be the need for transparency and disclosure.

These inquests have witnessed an unparalleled level of disclosure for proceedings of this kind.

This has been brought about by the thorough work undertaken by the HIP panel that preceded them. Millions of documents have been electronically stored, categorised and analysed.

Throughout the process, new material has come to light as well as witnesses who were untapped over the years.

An advocate present at the start could ensure that proper inquiries and evidence-gathering is carried out in future.

The full report can be seen on BBC North West Tonight at 18:30 BST on Friday.

Hillsborough legal battle

  • 1989 Lord Justice Taylor publishes a report criticising the police's handling of the disaster
  • 1990 The Director of Public Prosecutions announces his decision not to prosecute anyone involved
  • March 1991 The jury at the original inquests - overseen by South Yorkshire coroner Dr Stefan Popper - returns a verdict of accidental death
  • November 1991 The Police Complaints authority's case against Ch Supt David Duckenfield is discontinued after he retires early on medical grounds. It also drops its case against Supt Bernard Murray, who was with Ch Supt Duckenfield in the control box
  • April 1993 The High Court grants six families leave to proceed with an application for a judicial review of the inquests' verdicts - these were test cases for all the 96
  • November 1993 Lord Justice McCowan rejects the families' case that the inquests' verdicts were either "misleading or in error"
  • 1998 Home Secretary Jack Straw says no new evidence had emerged in a report compiled by Lord Justice Stuart-Smith - commissioned after an ITV docudrama - that could challenge the previous decisions. He says there is no basis for a second public inquiry
  • 2000 Following a private prosecution by the families against Mr Duckenfield and Mr Murray, the jury acquits Murray and cannot decide on a verdict for Mr Duckenfield. The judge discharges the jury and refuses an application by the families for a retrial
  • 2009 After the 20th anniversary of the disaster, Home Secretary Alan Johnson announces the establishment of the Hillsborough Independent Panel
  • 2012 The High Court quashes the original inquest verdicts and orders new hearings following the panel report's criticisms of the police and ambulance service

More on this story