The judge presiding over the re-opened inquests into the 96 Hillsborough victims has rapidly and categorically rejected attempts by the Police Federation to delay the hearings by up to six years, until the conclusion of criminal investigations into the tragedy.
There were gasps from some of the families of victims in court and a shout of “outrageous” when the QC representing the Federation insisted that the inquests must be delayed until the conclusion of investigations by the Stoddart Inquiry and the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). But the coroner Mr Justice Goldring decreed that the hearings must start early next year - and that they will not prejudice criminal investigations which may see officers charged with manslaughter.
The judge, sitting at the Principal Registry of the Family Division, will give his judgement next week on the highly contentious decision of whether the inquests will be held in the North-West or London - a point on which the families are deeply divided. Michael Mansfield QC, who represents 71 Hillsborough Family Support Group (HFSG) families, declared that his group were unanimously in favour of London, because of their fears that returning a 'home' inquest verdict in the North-West might hand the police grounds to claim prejudice. The idea of staging the inquests in Liverpool has been unanimously ruled out for that reason but Mr Mansfield said that families were also uneasy about other North-West locations, for fear of “actual or perceived” prejudice against Liverpool fans from potential jurors. They were particularly opposed Manchester, because of the possibility that football rivalries, or prejudice spread by what the court was told was “false publicity” about Liverpool, may be a problem with Manchester jurors.
“There could be prejudice of a kind that spreads on football terraces from time to time,” Mr Mansfield said. “There's a prejudice relating to false publicity. That impact is still there and harboured by people in various pockets of the North-West.”
But Pete Weatherby QC, representing 20 members of Hillsborough Justice Campaign (HJC, argued that his families were “alarmed” by the London idea and “vehemently against the idea the inquests being held more than 230 miles from their homes.”
Mr Mansfield also delivered stinging criticism of the IPCC, claiming it had been slow to begin work on its own investigation and could not be trusted to form a part of Mr Justice Goldring's investigation team for the inquest. “Some of the families have no faith in the IPCC. They have been woefully incapable of providing targeted dates for [the release] of information,” Mr Mansfield said, after the court had heard that 350,000 paper documents for the inquest still need to be converted to digital format. It is six months after the publication of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report exposed years of institutional failings and deceit on the Disaster at Sheffield Wednesday's ground and paved the way for the new inquests. Mr Mansfield urged Mr Justice Goldring to appoint his own investigative team, headed by a senior police officer, though the coroner made it clear that he believes there would be duplication.
The coroner's conduct of the pre-inquest hearing revealed an empathy which the families are said to have felt the original inquest corner, Stefan Popper, lacked. He began with a statement in which he told them that “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. There will be a determined search for the facts in which the process is fair and balanced. I shall try to ensure that they are conducted in as open and inclusive way as possible.” The hearing was adjourned until June 5.