THE NEED TO KNOW: The importance of ‘The Hillsborough Law’
It’s difficult to get across to people how devastating it is to lose a child, because most of the time the words that I know don’t describe it, not properly anyway. You miss your child constantly, no matter what you do, you wonder what they’d be doing now where they still here, you wonder what they’d look like and there’s so many dates in the calendar which are now so difficult to get through. You realise that no matter what problems you had before, they now seem so trivial and you question everything that you previously believed in as nothing makes sense anymore. You’re also left with a burning sense of ‘why? Why did this happen to Jasmine, to us?
Following Jasmine’s death, I kept replaying in my mind the events of that night, I questioned everything. Did I hit her back too hard or not hard enough? Could I have done it differently? Why did the ambulance take so long? Why weren’t we allowed in the ambulance? Why did we give her the grapes? Why did we choose that place for a holiday? I questioned everything, trying to figure out what could have been done differently. I tortured myself constantly as I had to try and make some sort of sense out of the hell we’d just found ourselves in. For my own piece of mind, I had to understand what had happened.
A couple of days after Jasmine passed away, we read press statements from the Welsh Ambulance Service that they had responded within 16 minutes. I knew that wasn’t true. And it quickly became apparent that It was no longer a case reconciling what had happened in my own mind, as difficult as that was, I was going to have get to the bottom of why they were saying they arrived in 16 minutes, when I knew it was nearer half an hour. But even at that point I never realised how difficult things were going to get.
A number of weeks later, we found out (again via the press), that the ambulance service was conducting an investigation in to what had happened that night. My first thoughts were, why are we only finding this out through the press? And how on earth to do they expect to get to the bottom of anything if they hadn’t even spoken to us? It didn’t make sense. When we eventually had contact with them 3 months later in November 2014, they offered to send someone out to take a statement from us, but instead we said they should just use the statements that had already been submitted to the coroner. I was also told that the report was almost done and if there was any delay, we’d be notified. The investigation report was eventually signed off 2 months later, without anyone having the decency to explain that there was going to be a delay and why.
In January 2015, we began to receive the disclosure documents for the inquest and it was a full year later before the inquest was held. These documents and statements raised more questions than answers. Some statements and documents were missing, some were very brief, some were almost word for word the same and some gave such a different view about what happened that night, that it left us wondering what on earth was going on.
In March 2015, we submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Welsh Ambulance Service, asking for copies of everything that they had relating to what happened that night as at that point we still missing so much information, including copies of the 999 recordings, and that need to know was growing by the day. We were being drip fed bits of information, deliberately in my opinion. After initially ignoring the request and then failing to get back to me on a number of occasions, we complained to the ICO and then 3 months after the FOI was submitted in June 2015, we turned up at their office in St Asaph before a scheduled board meeting where we were met by the Chief Executive and Chairman. It was at this meeting that we were promised a formal response, which we then received a week later, 2 months past the deadline for responding to FOI requests. It was also at this meeting that we were told that a search of the organisation’s email account would be carried out for emails relating to what had happened and when they had completed the search, they would get back to us. They didn’t, well not until a month after the conclusion of Jasmine’s inquest.
Over the next few months I kept looking over the disclosure as we received it, and then getting back to the solicitors with my views on what I’d read. This need to know, was at this point, all consuming. I couldn’t think of anything else and it was having a massive effect on my mental health. In truth it nearly drove me over the edge. Shortly after our meeting with the Chief Executive and Chairman of the Welsh Ambulance Service, I began to receive EMDR therapy, because I was becoming increasingly traumatised by constantly re-playing the events of that night. It got to the point, that even the mere thought of picking up the evidence bundles and looking at them was bringing on panic attacks. For about a month, I couldn’t look at anything and that made me feel guilty, it was a vicious circle. I was punishing myself for not looking after Jasmine’s interests, but punishing myself when I did. After a few sessions of EMDR I could start looking at things again, but it was still taking its toll. I felt as if I was constantly picking myself off the floor to deal with it all.
Whilst we were having so much difficulty in getting information from public organisations, organisations which are there to serve the public, we had another battle trying to get funding for the inquest itself. The solicitors, on our behalf, submitted 3 separate applications to the legal aid agency for exceptional case funding. That also meant that we had to provide 9 months’ worth of bank statements. No one else who attended court during Jasmine’s inquest, had to go through the indignity of applying for funding on 3 separate occasions and have every aspect of their lives looked into. It was demeaning. All the other interested parties drew on the public purse to pay for their legal costs and expenses without any scrutiny into their lives.
We were eventually granted exceptional case funding about a month before the inquest, when the Coroner ruled that Article 2 of the Human Rights Act had been engaged. It was a victory for us (at last), as we were faced with the prospect of going to inquest with no legal representation.
The inquest lasted 6 days and was held in Caernarfon, which was about a 2 hour drive away. It was draining and emotionally very difficult, particularly as we had to leave our 10 week old son in nursery. But, it was important that we were there. We had to attend. That need to know was still there and although it was difficult, we were there each day listening to the evidence. I can’t even begin to imagine how much more difficult it would have been had it been left up to Kathy and I to ask the questions and understand the finer points of inquest law. It can take a Barrister years of training and study, to become competent enough to undertake that role in court, yet in some cases families with no prior legal experience are expected to assume that role, whilst also reliving the trauma of their loved ones last moments. It’s quite frankly unjust and inhumane.
A month after the inquest in February 2016, we received a letter from the Chief Executive of the Ambulance Service saying that we would shortly be receiving copies of the emails that we’d originally requested in March the previous year. A month after the conclusion of the inquest. I was gobsmacked. We’d had no contact from them regarding the emails since June the previous year and we’d also been sat across a court room from them for 6 days. Yet no mention of the emails. It turns out that they had conducted the search in August 2015. They just didn’t want us to have them before the inquest, because they were damaging. The emails showed how witness statements went through a review process with numerous members of senior management making alterations and recommendations for changes. The emails also showed that it took them almost 3 months for them to get one employee to sign their statement. I have asked on a number of occasions to see the original witness statements and I was eventually told in January 2017 that all efforts to find the original copies of the statements had failed and that they don’t keep draft copies. Yet, the emails that they provided to me a month after the conclusion of Jasmine’s inquest showed they still had copies of the original statements in August 2015, some 5 months after I originally requested them and a year after Jasmine’s death.
To send the emails after the inquest was cruel. They knew we couldn’t do anything with them. All it did was make me replay the trauma of the night over and over again as I tried to piece together the jigsaw that was the 2,000 pages of emails that they’d sent us. Some of which were redacted. They’ll never understand the impact that that has had on me or my family.
The Hillsborough Law or to give it its full title ‘The Public Authority (Accountability) Bill aims to ensure that “public authorities and public servants tell the truth and act with candour, especially with respect to court proceedings, inquiries and investigations. This will help public institutions and further the public interest by contributing to the creation of a culture of integrity and openness, rather than institutional defensiveness.” https://www.thehillsboroughlaw.com/faqs It is an extremely important piece of legislation that is attempting to address a number of imbalances in the inquest system that bereaved families currently face and has come about because of the experiences of the families of the victims of the Hillsborough Disaster in April 1989.
The longest inquest in British legal history was the second inquest into the Hillsborough disaster which ran for 2 years and finished in April 2016. The original inquest ended in March 1991, almost 2 years after the disaster and returned a verdict of accidental death on what was then 95 victims. The Coroner in the original inquest ruled that he wouldn’t hear evidence about what happened after 3:15pm as it was his belief, that any damage to the victims had already taken place and irreversible. This meant that amongst other things that the emergency response that day (or lack thereof) wasn’t examined. It meant that the families of the victims wouldn’t get to hear all the facts surrounding the deaths of their loved ones and because of the decisions made during that inquest would then have to wait a generation for the truth to be heard.
For decades public bodies and their employees covered up their involvement and not only that, tried and were almost successful in blaming the victims and survivors of the Hillsborough disaster for the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans. It took 27 years for a court to rule that the deaths of the 96 were unlawful and that the fans were not responsible. Many relatives had passed away in the intervening years and never got to see justice served. Those families fought for a generation for justice, because when you lose someone in that manner, you need to know what happened, you need to know that everything that could have been done to save them was done and that if mistakes were made, that those mistakes are never made again. But there must also now be accountability, not just for the huge failings that caused the disaster but the massive cover up that followed.
The Hillsborough Law will force public bodies and their employees to act with “transparency, candour and frankness” at all times and if they intentionally or recklessly mislead the public or any inquiry then they will potentially face criminal charges.
A little over 3 years ago, my knowledge of inquests and how they impact families was limited to what I’d read and heard about the fight the Hillsborough families were facing. It’s not until you live through the process can you truly understand how hard it is and the sad fact is so many people up and down the country are currently fighting for answers as to how their loved ones passed away or for legal aid funding so that they’re able to go to court and not face a court room full of barristers on their own. The Hillsborough disaster has shone a light on how unjust the inquest system is and why it’s so important for changes to be made.
Fortunately, most people will never have to experience it but for those people that do, please show your support for The Hillsborough Law by contacting your local MP to request that they support the bill. By doing so you’ll be helping to ensure that public bodies are held accountable to the people that they serve and that families are given every support they need when they are dealing with their need to know in the future.