Hillsborough coroner promises to target 'culpable or discreditable conduct' in inquest early next year

Lord Justice Goldring reassures families that proceedings would be transparent

The coroner presiding over the new Hillsborough inquests today promised families of the 96 victims his hearings would try to expose "any culpable or discreditable conduct".

Lord Justice Goldring, making his opening statement at a pre-inquest hearing, reassured families the proceedings would be transparent.

He said the inquest will take place in "early 2014" and that he would not wait for the outcomes of two separate investigations before holding the fresh inquest into the 1989 disaster, during Liverpool's FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest.

He also said he would say where the inquest would be held next week, after hearing passionate submissions in favour of holding the inquiry in either London or the North West.

About 40 families travelled from Liverpool to London's Principal Registry of the Family Division.

He told them: "The purpose of these inquests is to examine fully and fairly how each of these victims of this terrible disaster lost his or her life.

"The inquests will seek to ensure so far as possible that the full facts are brought to light; that any culpable or discreditable conduct is exposed and brought to public notice.

"However, it should not be forgotten that an inquest is a fact-finding investigation.

"It is not a method of apportioning guilt.

"There are no parties, no indictment, no prosecution and no defence.

"In other words, an inquest is not a trial but an inquiry to establish facts."

Last December verdicts of accidental death from the original inquest from March 1991 were quashed.

The action was taken after the Hillsborough Independent Panel studied thousands of documents and reported there had been a huge cover up of what happened at Hillsborough and its aftermath.

When the verdicts were quashed, the Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge applauded the families for their tireless fight for the truth.

Today, Lord Justice Goldring echoed his comments, emphasising the continuing personal tragedy for all families.

He said: "For all that has been, or will be, said and written concerning the disaster, nothing will remove or lessen the private individual grief for those intimately concerned."

But the judge warned everyone involved that the inquest was a massive task.

"The enormity of that task and the work involved must not be underestimated," he said.

"The very fact that these inquests have been preceded by a raft of earlier investigative processes means that there is a very large volume of documents, hundreds of thousands, which require collation and organisation in a form suitable for disclosure."

Britain's worst sporting disaster unfolded at Sheffield's Hillsborough stadium on April 15 1989 during Liverpool's FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest as thousands of fans were crushed in the ground's Leppings Lane terrace.

Families of the victims are hoping today's hearing will set a date and location for the new inquest, but that is not guaranteed.

Various counsel for the interested parties have numerous submissions to make and it is possible the judge will retire and announce the date and location at a later date.

Relatives and friends are split into two groups: the Hillsborough Family Support Group (HFSG) and the Hillsborough Justice Campaign (HJC).

The HFSG wants the full hearing held in London but the HJC would prefer it to be held in the North West.

Turning to the issue of timing and location, Lord Justice Goldring said that, after reading various submissions, the choice of venue has come down to either "the North West or London".

Christina Lambert QC, lead counsel to the Hillsborough inquests, said suggested venues range from "Newcastle to London and the North West".

She added: "There's no location that you determine that is going to suit everyone."

Discussing the timing of the inquests, Ms Lambert said holding them in 2015 or 2016 was "simply not acceptable".

She said it had been suggested that the inquests should not be held until the end of separate investigations by the IPCC and a criminal inquiry led by Jon Stoddart, the former Chief Constable of Durham.

Ms Lambert went on: "We would invite you to bear in mind that there's strong public interest in these inquests commencing as soon as possible.

"You will be acutely conscious that the events under scrutiny occurred 24 years ago."

Ms Lambert said there was no rule of law that stated an inquest must be held after a criminal investigation.

Michael Mansfield QC, who represents 71 families from the HFSG, said any delay caused by letting other investigations conclude was "simply out of the question".

He urged the judge to fix a date around the second week of January 2014 for the full inquests' start.

Even if that date is not fixed, setting a date is key, he said, as it "concentrates the mind".

Mr Mansfield said the families he represents want the inquests to be held in London after long discussions about the location.

"What was of interest was a genuine desire to locate somewhere that was above any suggestion of bias particularly one way or the other," he said.

He added that there was "a legacy" arising from Hillsborough and football.

He said animosity and rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester meant the inquests should not be held 25 miles down the M62 motorway in Manchester as some people have suggested.

The barrister said one of the large rooms in Westminster's Central Hall would be ideal and had housed previous inquiries such as the Bloody Sunday hearing when it sat in London.

A live link-up with Liverpool could be set up for those who could not travel to the capital, he added.

But Pete Weatherby QC, who represents around 17 families, said his clients want the inquests held in the North of England.

He said: "In terms of venue, the families I represent are vehemently against the inquests being held more than 200 miles from their homes."

He added: "We say, in essence, that the inquests should be held as close as reasonably possible to where the bereaved families live."

Mr Weatherby said he agreed that Manchester would not be suitable due to its historic rivalry with Liverpool.

However, he said it was "wrong" to rule out the whole of the North West, including places such as Chester, Crewe and Warrington.

"Without being flippant - the North does have the internet, it does have hotels and an excellent transport network."

He went on: "If the inquests are to be held far away from where the bereaved families live, they will be deprived to some extent from engaging with the proceedings."

He said some will find the process "traumatic" and will want to "return to the heart of their support network at the end of each day".

PA