A Blog from Tomas Baynes, BIHR

On 2 October 2000 our Human Rights Act became law, protecting universal human rights across the UK. Fifteen years on, this October BIHR has organised 15 days of action, including a tour with events across the UK to celebrate this important anniversary our Human Rights Act and the difference it has made to our democracy and people’s lives across the UK.  Each day we will be looking at one story from each of the years the Human Rights Act has been in force, today is the turn of 2012  and the case of Attorney General v HM Coroner for South Yorkshire (West) [2012] EWHC 3783 (Admin).  This case is important because allows the bereaved family members of victims to seek are measure of legal recourse. This case dealt with the families of those victims of the Hillsborough Disaster, an event which left a lasting mark on British social memory. Through Article 2 of the Human Rights Act, they were able to get a ruling from the Court which required the state to reinvestigate the Hillsborough Disaster.

 “Just about everyone in this country remembers the catastrophe that took place at the Hillsborough Stadium” is how Lord Burnett assessed the legacy of the disaster when 96 football fans lost their lives during the semi-final of the FA cup between Liverpool and Nottingham in April 1989. An influx of supporters into the ground caused a crush which resulted in the deaths. In the subsequent inquiry into the incident, Lord Taylor stated in his report that the primary reason for the tragedy was a lack of police control. However the Director of Public Prosecutions did not bring a case against the South Yorkshire Police Service due to lack of evidence and as the Coroner, in his report, had limited the scope of the inquest to before 3:15pm, as all the victims had been dead or suffered irreversible dead damage by this point. However, this meant that the responses of the Emergency services could not be fully scrutinised after this cut off point.

It subsequently came to light that the South Yorkshire Police had altered statements they had taken from witnesses which were critical of the police’s response to the accident.  In light of growing public calls for a new review into the disaster, Lord Justice Stuart-Smith was tasked with analysing this new evidence but concluded that this did not amount to grounds for a new inquiry. Despite several failed court actions against the South Yorkshire Police Service, an independent body was established to oversee a fresh inquiry. The Hillsborough Independent Panel reviewed new evidence released by the South Yorkshire Police Service and found that the safety of the people in the crowd had been "compromised at every level." The Panel’s report prompted the Attorney General to take a case against the Coroner’s office. 

Presiding over the case, Lord Burnett judged that the police inquest into the event had been considerably flawed due to the 3:15pm cut off point and the newly revealed evidence which suggested that there were further amendments and alterations to police statements made by the South Yorkshire Police Service. As a result of these factors, Lord Burnett quashed the previous inquiries and decided that there should be a new inquiry into the disaster. He advised that the new inquiry should engage with Article 2 of the ECHR; the right to life.

The inquiry into the Hillsborough Disaster was the longest public inquiry in English history. The reason for this was the perseverance of the bereaved families of the victims. For 20 years, the Hillsborough Families Support Group were integral in bringing the case to the public eye and eventually obtaining a new inquiry to be granted. The public body’s failure to adequately investigate deaths for which it may be responsible puts it in breach of the Human Rights Act under Article 2. As in Attorney General v HM Coroner for South Yorkshire, Article 2 enables bereaved families to seek compensation and closure for the loss that they have suffered as a result of a failure on the part of a public institution. The Hillsborough Families Support Group had consistently questioned the findings of the initial inquiry and had continuously campaigned for the release of unpublished evidence which essential in bringing about the Lord Burnett’s judgment in Attorney General v HM Coroner for South Yorkshire.

A case like this brings home how human rights can combat uncheck ‘facts’ which are given by public authorities that have adversely affected bereaved families. It demonstrates the importance of having a human rights mechanism which can work to help those who have been unjustly treated by the state and provides them with a measure of support. Now more than ever is a time to celebrate our human rights system here in the UK.