Just months after being promised a brave new dawn, families of those who perished at Hillsborough were left distraught by intrusive visits from police investigators, a preliminary inquest hearing was told.
The officers, who turned up unannounced at their homes, left them feeling that yet again they were the ones under investigation, their lawyers said. For some it was a devastating reminder of the day in 1989 when they were informed of their relative’s death.
Michael Mansfield QC told Lord Justice Golding that police family liaison officers working on the Stoddart Inquiry, a criminal investigation ordered by Home Secretary Theresa May the Hillsborough Independent Panel exposed institutional failings and deceit, failed to make appointments through legal representatives.
“The first obvious signs of the investigation in this case came with unheralded and un-notified approaches to the families. Echoes of the past rang through the streets. It should never have happened,” said the barrister, representing 73 of the 96 families at a pre-hearing for the new inquest. “People who were door-stepped felt as though they were the ones being investigated.”
The revelation was in stark contrast to the jubilation of families in December when the original verdicts of accidental death were quashed and a fresh inquest was ordered. At the same time Mrs May announced fresh police investigation to be led by former chief constable Jon Stoddart and run alongside an Independent Police Complaints Commission inquiry.
After 23 years of battling for justice, relatives were applauded for their “determined search for the truth for the truth”. Their breakthrough came last September when the independent panel laid bare a cover-up which attempted to shift the blame for the tragedy onto its victims. It revealed operational failures as well as the fact that the victims were not exceptionally drunk, as was originally suggested, and around half could have survived.
But Christina Lambert QC, lead counsel to the inquest told the coroner: “A very considerable degree of upset was caused by the intrusive approach that has been taken by family liaison officers (from the Stoddart investigation). It is profoundly to be regretted that contact has proven to be so intrusive and unwelcome.”
Solicitor Marcia Willis Stewart explained that for many of her clients it was a horrific “re-run” of the painful day in April 1989 when their relatives were crushed during Liverpool’s FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest at the Sheffield stadium.
“One elderly couple said that they thought someone else had died,” she explained. “A lot of the families who were cold called or door-stepped were distressed and distraught,” she said after the hearing.
Barry Devonside, who lost his 18-year-old son Christopher in the tragedy, said he was stunned to have two Metropolitan police arrive at his home: “My wife and I are pretty strong individuals but we weren’t comfortable with what they had to say. They left the house at my instigation.”
Mr Devonside, however, said he had received a personal apology from Mr Stoddart, who had assured him the officers had been removed from the investigation.
Samantha Leak QC, representing the Stoddart investigation, told the coroner: “Mistakes have been made in the approach to some family members. We apologise unreservedly for any distress that has been caused.”
Families, however, said they were delighted with Mr Justice Goldring’s decision that the inquest should have a broad scope and be held in front of a jury, starting on 31 March next year.