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Hillsborough: New inquest begins

As the new inquest into the Hillsborough disaster begins, SB Nation looks back at the flawed first inquests, the campaign to have the verdicts overturned, and the future of the investigations.

Liverpool FC

On 15 April 1989 Liverpool travelled to Hillsborough stadium, home of Sheffield Wednesday, for an FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest that ended in tragedy. Ninety-five Liverpool fans died that day; one died a few years later, having never awoken from his injuries. Hundreds more were injured in the crush, and thousands were traumatised. In the years that followed, families, friends and campaigners have been set against police, press and politicians, as they pursued the truth of the tragedy.

Today, almost 25 years later, a new inquest began in Warrington, Cheshire, 19 miles west of Liverpool. This inquest is the first stage in a series of interconnected investigations that will attempt to establish, once and for all, issues not just of responsibility but of culpability; the first step along a road that will, all being well, finally see justice delivered.

What happened at the first inquest?

The first inquests opened shortly after the disaster and concluded nearly two years later, in March 1991. An inquest is a judicial process that seeks to establish who, how and why an individual has died; at the time, this was the biggest inquest that the country had ever seen. The jury returned a verdict of accidental death for each of the 95 deceased, and the later inquest into the 96th victim reached the same conclusion.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the first inquest was the decision by the coroner to impose a 3.15pm cut-off point, corresponding with the time the first ambulance arrived on the pitch. It was decided that, by this point, each individual that would go on to perish had already suffered fatal, irreversible injury. This decision was made on the basis of evidence submitted by pathologists, which stated that all the victims had by this stage suffered irreversible traumatic asphyxia. No evidence relating to events beyond 3.15pm was heard. Counsel for the families argued at the time that this would prevent an adequate and complete investigation, but these concerns were rejected by the coroner.

Other concerns included questions over the accuracy of evidence provided by the police, the lack of opportunity for the families to challenge the police versions of events, and the decision on the part of the coroner to record and publish the blood-alcohol levels of the deceased. This decision was taken despite the Taylor report — the first examining the incident — having concluded that the vast majority of fans were not drunk or even inebriated, and that "the main reason for the disaster was the failure of police control."

What happened after the inquests had concluded?

The families, campaign groups, and other individuals have, over the years, been consistent in their arguments that the inquest was deeply flawed in a number of significant ways, and that the verdicts should be quashed and new inquests held. An application to the Attorney General in 1992 on the basis of procedural irregularities was rejected, and a judicial review in 1993 on similar grounds was also unsuccessful. In 1997, a report commissioned by the government again reinforced the findings of the coroner, with particular reference to the 3.15pm cut off.

Following the 20th anniversary of the tragedy in 2009, the government agreed to a "full public disclosure" of all relevant documents. The Hillsborough Independent Panel (HIP) was convened to report on the documents, publishing its findings on 12 September 2012. Along with the findings that the main cause was a lack of police control, and that there had been significant alteration of statements and other attempts by the police to pass the blame on to the fans, was the conclusion that in 41 cases "what happened ... after 3.15pm was significant in determining the outcome." Following the publication of the report, the Attorney General applied to have the findings of the initial inquest quashed. On 19 December, this application was granted by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Igor Judge.

Why is there a new inquest?

The decision to quash the findings of the initial inquests amounts, in essence, to a full and complete vindication of many of the arguments that the families and campaign groups have been making since 1991. Lord Judge found that the decision to impose the 3.15pm cutoff was "seriously flawed" and, as a consequence, there was inadequate investigation into whether a number of individuals could have survived given proper attention, whether the actions or omissions of the emergency services after 3.15pm might have contributed to any deaths, and whether this in turn implies any culpability on the part of either the police or the other emergency services.

The findings also addressed a number of other issues. Lord Judge stated that evidence relating to alcohol levels was given unwarranted prominence by the coroner, and by contrast the safety of Hillsborough as a venue was not considered. He also stated that the inquest jury were "ignorant of the full extent of the amendments and alterations to police statements," and indeed to the statements of employees of the ambulance and fire services. While noting that the inquest is not directly concerned with any potential prosecutions, he stated that the new inquest could "reflect whether the efforts made by some of the authorities to conceal evidence relating to neglect and breach of duty may have some relevant bearing on the cause of death".

This new inquest, therefore, will reach a finding for each of the 96: whether their death was an accident, whether they were unlawfully killed, or whether there is not enough evidence to reach a definite conclusion. While no finding on criminal or civil liability is permitted, the coroner has the power to investigate "any acts or omissions which directly led to the cause of death."

What other investigations are ongoing?

The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), which deals with the conduct failings of police officers in England and Wales, is undertaking two investigations. The first is a wholly independent investigation into the police actions in the aftermath of the tragedy, encompassing the interactions of senior officers with politicians and the press, the taking and amendment of statements, and any attempts to pass blame from the police to the fans.

The IPCC are also managing — that is, directing and overseeing — Operation Resolve, a criminal investigation that seeks to establish, ultimately, whether 96 people were unlawfully killed. Both investigations have been working closely with the coroner in advance of this fresh inquest, and the IPCC recently announced that 22 officers are currently suspected of criminal offences ranging from misconduct in a public office to manslaughter.

How long will this all take?

A while. On Monday, the eleven jurors (and ten reserve jurors) were chosen; to ensure their neutrality, none can be serving police or ex-police officers, or supporters of Liverpool, Nottingham Forest or Sheffield Wednesday. They will be formally sworn in on Tuesday, and the inquest is expected to take at least nine months.

Beyond the inquest, the IPCC investigation, which began in December 2012, is estimated to take a total of two years, with some elements being completed sooner. But there is obviously great scope for an investigation of this complexity to slip beyond its deadlines, and should prosecutions follow, allowing for trials and appeals could well add more years to the process. That the wheels of justice turn slowly is no surprise to anybody. But at least, and at last, they're turning.