Warning as 'decades-long fights for justice remain a risk' without Hillsborough Law

Anfield displaying a tribute to the 97 victims of the Hillsborough disaster
-Credit: (Image: Peter Byrne/PA Wire)

A parliamentary committee has called on the government to adopt a Hillsborough Law due to concerns stronger measures are needed from the state in response to tragedies.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights said stronger measures are needed to require openness from public bodies, and more support for victims’ families to overcome an imbalance in legal support during inquests. Calls for a Hillsborough Law arose in response to the protracted failure over several decades to uncover and acknowledge the truth of what happened at Hillsborough, which resulted in the deaths of 97 Liverpool fans.

The Hillsborough Law Now campaign has led the call for the adoption of specific proposals designed to alter the way in which official inquiries into major incidents are approached and conducted. And a new report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, published today, Friday, May 24 examines the need for the proposals and what progress has been made in implementing them.

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The committee said initial government steps to improve the way public institutions respond to public inquiries and the increase in legal support provided to families was welcomed. But it warned reforms needed to go "substantially further to provide meaningful changes in how victims and the public get the truth".

The report said public bodies "may still prioritise protecting institutional and individual reputations" - and an imbalance in legal resources between families and public bodies continued to damage effective participation in inquests.

The report called for a culture of openness which would be helped by the introduction of a duty of candour backed by criminal sanctions. The Criminal Justice Bill, currently before parliament, requires a type of duty of candour, but the committee added by focusing on the police alone, this would not meet the calls of the Hillsborough Law Now campaign.

The committee also said victims' advocates could also play a crucial role in helping families navigate inquest procedures, but concerns have been raised about the delays in appointing the position to families following a major incident.

Publishing the report, chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Joanna Cherry KC MP said: "All of us on the human rights committee have huge respect and admiration for the courage and fortitude of the families of those who died at Hillsborough and the survivors. Just this week we have also seen how the victims of the infected blood scandal had to go through a similar struggle.

"It is shameful that their pain was compounded by the delays and obfuscation they faced in their search for the truth, and the decades they had to wait for justice. Even so many years later lessons still have to be learnt to ensure that these failures are not repeated.

"We are calling on the government to make sure there are cast iron measures in place that give families as much clout at investigations as the public bodies whose reputations are at risk. We also want to see more widespread measures to establish a culture of openness to ensure the truth is not hidden from the public and those involved."

The calls from the committee largely echo those of Hillsborough Law, which was called for by families of victims and survivors of the disaster following the 2015 Hillsborough inquests. The law, if brought into practice in the UK, would enforce a requirement of authorities and organisations who are responsible for public safety to tell the truth, preventing these groups from withholding or spreading false information.

In December last year, the government finally responded to Bishop James Jones' 2017 report "The Patronising Disposition of Unaccountable Power". Despite calls from Hillsborough families and survivors, the government rejected bringing in a Hillsborough Law.

The government's report said: "It is our view that the duties and obligations that have been created since the Hillsborough disaster, combined with actions set out in this response, broadly achieves the aims and upholds the principles of what has come to be known as the ‘Hillsborough Law’."

However, Labour leader Keir Starmer has previously exclusively pledged to the ECHO that a Hillsborough Law would be a priority of his party when it came to power. On the 35th anniversary of the disaster last month, Sir Keir said: "Labour stands unequivocally with the Hillsborough families. There can be no justice for those who died until we stop the same thing ever happening again. Making Hillsborough Law reality would be a priority of my Labour government." A general election has been called for July 4 with Labour considerably ahead in the opinion polls.

Hillsborough Survivors Support Alliance director Ross Telfer previously told the ECHO: "To us, the survivors, the Hillsborough Law is a proposed legislation that aims to ensure accountability and transparency in all public authorities to prevent future disasters like the Hillsborough tragedy. It seeks to uphold the rights of the bereaved families and survivors by providing access to justice and truth.

"Hillsborough Law would be a permanent legacy to all those affected by the events of April 15 1989, and those that have fought and campaigned for the truth, justice and change for the better."

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