Lord Justice Stuart-Smith yesterday apologised for a comment he made during a meeting to discuss his re- examination of the 1989 tragedy.
The 69-year-old Court of Appeal judge , who was appointed in June by the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, met families of victims at the Merseyside Maritime Museum yesterday morning. Shaking hands with Phil Hammond, whose teenage son Philip died at Hillsborough, he asked if some of the families were going to be late "like Liverpool fans".
For those affected, the words invoked images of the FA Cup semi-final clash when many of the Liverpool fans arrived late at the Sheffield Wednesday ground - a factor which some feel contributed to subsequent events.
The reaction was swift. Mr Hammond said: "I can't believe that remark. I just walked away. He said, `Are all your families here or are they going to be late like Liverpool fans?'"
He added: "It's the first time he's met the families and he's coming out with comments like that."
Trevor Hicks, chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, who was late for the meeting and did not hear the comment, said they had accepted the judge's apology with reservation but said his "gaffe" was only part of the problem. Mr Hicks said: "There was a judicial review of about six or seven cases about three years ago. But a lot of the things we are going on about - some major things - ran in the appeal courts, meaning there's a lot of the new evidence he can't comment on."
Meanwhile Jack Spriggs, the councillor who chairs the Liverpool City Council Hillsborough Disaster Working Party, said the judge could not shrug off this off as a "flippant remark" and should resign.
The judge is in Liverpool for three days to receive information gathered by relatives about the disaster, and particularly the role played by the police on the day.
He will look at new evidence that may cast doubts on other inquiries into the disaster and the inquest verdicts of accidental death. He expects to report to Mr Straw later this year.
News of the judge's apology came from a spokeswoman for the Home Office. She added: "He's made it very clear he has not made up his mind about the outcome of the scrutiny. He very much regrets making this off-the- cuff comment."
Within the legal profession Lord Justice Stuart-Smith has built a reputation as a stolid, Establishment figure. He was appointed by MI5 as Commissioner for the Security Service, its first independent watchdog.Reuse content