Hillsborough Law: It's time for bereaved families to be treated fairly.
Following the conclusion of last year’s second inquest into the Hillsborough disaster of April 1989, Andy Burnham MP, announced that he was going to call for the introduction of a ‘Hillsborough Law’. His experience of how that particular inquest was conducted and his knowledge of the fight that the Hillsborough families had to endure over a generation just to access information and find out the facts surrounding how their loved ones died left him in no doubt that changes to this country’s inquest process are needed.
The bill is being heard today before Parliament and will propose amongst other things parity of legal funding for inquests or public inquiries for relatives whose loved ones were killed or seriously injured whilst in the care of the Police or other public organisations. The bill would also place a duty on public authorities and its employees to act with ‘transparency, candour and frankness’. Potentially, employees could face a 2 year prison term if they are found to be in breach of these requirements.
It’s 2017 and we actually need a law in this country to make public bodies and their employees to tell the truth. Think about it, it’s staggering.
When you lose someone suddenly or if the cause of death is uncertain, then as a bereaved relative you’ll likely have to go through an inquest hearing to find out the facts about how your loved one died. At the inquest, the coroner will hear the facts such as key witness statements, medical reports and the results of a post mortem for example and will then make a judgement on how the person died. It sounds fairly straight forward but the outcome of the inquest is completely reliant on every relevant bit of information being heard the Coroner. If the Coroner doesn’t have all the facts, then that puts into question the verdict.
Shortly after our daughter, Jasmine, passed away in August 2014, we were told by the Coroner’s Officer that her inquest was likely to take place in November or December that year. We were also told that we could have legal representation at the hearing, but it wasn’t necessary, and that when the Coroner was ready, all the relevant documentation would be shared with us. That timeline was never going to happen and as it turned out we absolutely needed legal representation.
We instructed a solicitor a couple of months after Jasmine died, even though we were told it wasn’t necessary, because we were concerned about what we were reading in the press. Several press releases by the Welsh Ambulance Service had suggested that they got to Jasmine 16 minutes after they received the call from us. We knew that wasn’t the case and it concerned us as it took the paramedic 25 minutes to get to us. We were also concerned because we found out in the press that they were investigating what happened the night Jasmine died. There was no contact with us, it was all done through the media. When we eventually spoke with them, we were told that their investigation would be complete by the end of November 2014, when we would receive their findings. That never happened. It was eventually signed off the following January without any explanation.
When we received the investigation report, we also received several other documents ahead of the preliminary hearing which was due to take place in February 2015. It was clear after reading these documents that a lot of other important documents were missing, including copies of the 999 calls and also the statements of a number of employees from the Ambulance Service, Hospital and RAF who were also involved.
At that preliminary hearing in February 2015, we were told that the full inquest hearing would take place within the next few weeks, but it was clear that that wasn’t going to happen as too much was missing. It took almost another year for Jasmine’s inquest to be heard.
In that time, from the preliminary hearing taking place until the full inquest being heard in January last year, we had to keep requesting documents from the public bodies involved. It was an extremely frustrating process as we were being drip fed bits at a time. They didn’t just say, here you are, that’s everything that we’ve got. We were given the bare minimum and had to try and fill in the blanks ourselves.
We eventually put in a freedom of information request into the Welsh Ambulance Service in March 2015 asking for copies of all documents, emails, witness statements etc. that related to the night Jasmine died. Essentially, we wanted to know what they knew. It’s not an unreasonable request. In June 2015, 3 months after this FOI request and having still not received a response (I also complained to the Information Commissioner) we met with the Chief Executive and Chairman of the WAS who agreed to respond within a week, which they did. I eventually received a handful of documents, but nowhere near what I was expecting and no emails.
The whole process of trying to find out all what they knew about the night our daughter died was exhausting, physically and mentally. It was horrendous.
A month after the conclusion of Jasmine’s inquest, we received a box from the WAS, containing almost 2,000 pages of emails. A month after the inquest had concluded. There was no explanation as to why we were eventually receiving these documents. After ploughing through them, they weren’t in any order and there was a lot of duplication, as copies of the same emails were taken from numerous mailboxes, it became clear as to why we only received them after the inquest.
The conclusion of the investigation was held up because the WAS couldn’t get one of their key witnesses to sign their statement and they needed this for the report to be finalised. It took 3 months from the completion of the first draft of this person’s statement to the point where it was eventually signed. This person needed to be “re-engaged”. What was also clear from the emails we were given was that all the witness statements from the Welsh Ambulance Service went through a review process where they were changed by several people. I have asked the WAS for copies of the original witness statements on several occasions and have been told that they don’t keep draft paper copies and that the electronic versions that were found in several mailboxes a year after Jasmine died have since all been deleted. It’s hard to believe to be honest.
Inquests are expensive. It’s estimated that the second Hillsborough inquest cost over £70m, a cost that would never would have occurred had the original inquest been thorough, open and honest. That doesn’t even begin to evaluate the emotional cost those families endured over the years. In most cases, bereaved families are expected to meet the costs of the inquest hearing themselves and this can prove very costly. Funding is only granted by the Legal Aid agency in very rare cases and the application to the agency must meet very strict criteria. In the build up to Jasmine’s inquest we had to submit three applications for exceptional case funding. As part of these applications we had to submit 9 months banks statements over a 12 month period as the application is also means tested. It also needed the Coroner to rule that article 2 of the Human Rights Act was engaged. This meant that there was a wider public interest into the findings of the inquest. It was because of this ruling that our application for funding was approved. Although, it’s worth pointing out that if our financial position ever changes, we must pay back the costs. It’s just a loan. Kathy and I are the only people who gave evidence at that inquest who may yet still have to pay legal costs. It beggars belief.
What makes this even more unpalatable is the Welsh Ambulance Service and the Hospital Trust were represented at the inquest as were the RAF. None of those organisations or individuals who were represented by those bodies had to go through the indignity of someone trawling through every aspect of their life so that they could have fair, legal representation when the inquest came to court. In one of the emails that we received from the WAS, the Trust’s solicitor remarked (I’m paraphrasing) that it was strange that the family were asking for legal representation. How is it strange to ask for parity? How could we possibly want what they all take for granted? It’s a completely dismissive and insulting attitude.
The inquest system needs radical reform. The system and processes need to reflect that they’re dealing with families who have lost someone, sometimes in the most horrific circumstances and as it stands at present the inquest process only adds to the stress and trauma of the bereaved. It’s not asking much to have a level playing field, for families to have adequate help at a time when they need it most.
Well done Andy Burnham.