Further doubt has been cast on the ruling that stopped the trial of two former South Yorkshire police officers and the force’s ex-lawyer on charges of perverting the course of public justice, for amending police statements after the 1989 Hillsborough disaster.
The trial judge, Mr Justice William Davis, ruled on 26 May that the jury must acquit the three defendants because the official inquiry by Lord Justice Taylor, to which the amended police statements were sent, was not a “course of public justice”.
Davis reached that conclusion by arguing that Taylor’s inquiry, set up by the Home Office, was “administrative”, not “a court exercising the judicial power of the state”. He cited another judge, Sir Peter Openshaw, who ruled in 2018 that Taylor “was not exercising a judicial function”.
That view, which Openshaw suggested was to some extent a matter of opinion rather than clearly defined law, outraged bereaved families of the 96 people killed at Hillsborough, who have fought a 32-year battle for the truth and accountability.
Their perspective has now been supported by a review of the Taylor inquiry’s official questionnaires, completed by witnesses who were visited by the West Midlands police, the force appointed to investigate the disaster. The questionnaires, not mentioned in the recent trial, were entitled, in capital letters: “Lord Justice Taylor’s Judicial Inquiry into the Hillsborough Football Disaster.”
On the inside page, again in capitals, witnesses were informed that: “This Questionnaire is to Assist Lord Justice Taylors’ [sic] Judicial Inquiry.”
Witnesses who completed the questionnaires included not only paying supporters at the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, but also members of the emergency services who had been on duty.
After the ruling, Catherine Watson, who was at Hillsborough aged 24 supporting Liverpool, looked up her completed questionnaire and sent it to Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester and a long-term supporter of the bereaved families’ justice campaign.
Burnham said: “Last week’s ruling referred to the Taylor inquiry as an administrative process. However, this appears to contradict that. People providing statements had no doubt it was a judicial inquiry. Police statements presented to the Taylor inquiry were also used at the subsequent inquest.
“If public servants can provide selective or misleading information to an inquiry and an inquest and face no consequences, the implications for public accountability are very serious.”
Watson said: “I believed that the Taylor inquiry was a legal proceeding; the fact that police officers took my statement confirmed that belief. I believed that I could be called upon to testify to the information I had provided.”
When she heard the trial had been stopped on the grounds that the Taylor inquiry was not a course of justice, she said her reaction was “total disbelief”.
Pete Weatherby QC, who represented 22 families at the 2014-16 inquests, which reached a verdict that the 96 victims at Hillsborough were unlawfully killed due to police gross negligence, said the questionnaires supported the view that the Taylor inquiry was a course of justice.
“Taylor was appointed by government to be the independent judicial chair of a tribunal to investigate a terrible, avoidable tragedy,” he said. “It had the hallmarks of a court, heard oral evidence, had questioning by advocates for interested parties, reached conclusions of fact and accountability, and made recommendations which were published in parliament. Surely it does violence to ordinary language to suggest it was not a ‘course of public justice’.”
Weatherby also questioned the view that the first inquest, heard from November 1990 to March 1991, could not have been perverted by the amended police statements. Taylor himself noted in his report that the evidence gathered for his inquiry also provided the evidence for the inquest.
Weatherby said the Crown Prosecution Service should have appealed against the ruling, adding: “If the families had had legal standing in this trial, the ruling would have been appealed without hesitation.”
The judges, Openshaw and Davis, both declined to comment, based on the convention that judges do not comment publicly on cases they have presided over.
A CPS spokesperson said: “After long and careful consideration of the judgment, against the legal basis upon which we are permitted to appeal, we concluded that we were unable to appeal.”