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The Law That Could Prevent the Next Hillsborough

35 years on from the disaster that killed 97 Liverpool fans, survivors believe a law demanding a ‘duty of candour’ in public inquiries could prevent future cover ups

Liverpool supporters on the Kop in April 2022 display a giant mosaic in memory of the 97 victims of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster. Photo: Action Plus Sports/Alamy Live News

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As the details of the Post Office Horizon scandal hit the headlines, Ian Byrne had a familiar feeling wash over him.

As a survivor of the Hillsborough disaster and a lifelong campaigner for justice for the 97 Liverpool fans who lost their lives that day, the experience of repeated cover-ups and victims struggling to be heard was something the MP for Liverpool West Derby knew all too well.

It has been one of a litany of historic and ongoing scandals that have come all too frequently in modern Britain – from the Infected Blood Scandal and WASPI Women to the lack of NHS oversight that allowed serial killer Lucy Letby to kill seven newborns in the Countess of Chester hospital.

Now – exactly 35 years to the day after Hillsborough – survivors like him and the families of those lost that day have struggled to get full justice or accountability from the authorities who lied and covered up what happened that day.

But now their hopes for justice rest on a new idea – something they say could stop the next Hillsborough disaster or Post Office scandal from happening. 

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The idea behind the so-called ‘Hillsborough Law’ is relatively simple. It would introduce a legal responsibility to tell the truth in any form of formal inquiry or proceeding (otherwise known as a ‘duty of candour’) with criminal punishments if they breach that law.

“It’s not okay that someone whose wage is paid by us the taxpayer to lie at an inquiry to us the taxpayer,” explains Elkan Abrahamson, director of the Hillsborough Law Now campaign. 

“Police officers at Hillsborough were charged with fabricating or altering evidence in the initial inquiry into Hillsborough. 

“They were charged but their barrister made a submission that as it wasn’t a statuary inquiry or a court hearing, there was no effect to lying to that inquiry. And the judges accepted that.”

Another major part of the proposed Hillsborough Law would be a protection offering victims parity of legal funding in inquests.

“The Hillsborough families had to crowdfund their solicitor for the first inquest when they were facing the full power of the state, lined up against the KCs, the barristers, the FA, the police,” explains Byrne.

“Imagine the difference at the beginning of Hillsborough if we had had the same resources as the state had.

“I liken it to entering the boxing ring against a 6ft 9 brute like Tyson Fury with a blindfold on and your hands tied behind your back. And I think that that encapsulates Hillsborough to me, that’s what was getting faced. And that’s why it took a remarkable story to end up where we ended up.”

Elkan Abrahamson from the Hillsborough Justice campaign gives evidence to the Commons Home affairs Committee at Portcullis House in London in 2014. Photo: PA Images/Alamy

The impact campaigners hope the law will have is varied. On the surface, obviously, it would make it much harder for state organisations – from the police to the NHS or the Post Office – to lie to official inquests. 

In doing so it could prevent the next major scandal – or at least catch it far earlier in the process.

And for victims and their families forced to sit through such cover-ups it would offer real accountability to those who hid the truth. 

But the benefits, Byrne says, go much further… These scandals don’t just have a huge personal cost, but a financial one – from compensation to the long string of court cases and inquests.

Over £153m has already been paid out in compensation to victims of the Post Office Horizon Scandal, for example.

“Imagine how much taxpayer money would have been saved on endless inquests and inquiries and compensation if we had something at the outset when the truth had to be told,” says Byrne. 

But thus far the Government have refused the campaigners’ demands. 

They have claimed that a Hillsborough Law isn’t needed because the Government had signed a “Hillsborough charter”, that states a commitment by departments to openness and transparency after public tragedies.

But for Byrne and Abrahamson, the Government’s proposals lack proper repercussions for those caught out trying to orchestrate a cover-up. 

Abrahamson cites the fact that a ‘duty of candour’ newly put in place for police officers, for example, only risks them facing professional punishment if they lie, not criminal.

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And while Byrne says Justice Secretary Alex Chalk has been receptive to the campaign’s demands, he argues the Government focus on loose culture change risks being too “soft touch”. 

“What better way to change the culture than to know if you’re heading into cover-up territory then you’re gonna be prosecuted and face the ultimate penalties,” Byrne explains.

Labour leader Keir Starmer has repeatedly pledged to pass a Hillsborough Law if Labour wins the next election however, and now the campaigners’ main priority is ensuring Labour don’t back away from that promise and pass the law in the first 100 days of any future government.

“I keep coming back to fairness, equality, and the ability to get justice regardless of what position you’re in in society,” says Byrne. “For me, it encapsulates the unfairness of this country, and the Hillsborough Law would rebalance the scales of justice so all could get justice and that’s so important to me having lived through what I did at Hillsborough.

“Whoever you are, whatever your circumstances, you should be able to get justice.”

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