Kate Stone, who represented 22 families in the Hillsborough inquests, explains how a 27-year fight for truth and justice against police slurs and false media reports has finally come to an end.
On Tuesday morning, the courtroom erupted as the Hillsborough jury returned two of a series of momentous conclusions: that the 96 were unlawfully killed, and that their fellow supporters had played no role in their deaths. As a member of one of their legal teams, I had the great privilege to be present when the families got the vindication they had been waiting for all this time.
The landmarks of the families' struggle are well documented now. Firstly there was the unspeakable horror of the disaster itself and the ordeal of identifying their loved ones as part of a group who would become known as the 96. Then there were the false media reports about the fans and their culpability, which came in the wake of Chief Superintendent Duckenfield's lie on the day about supporters forcing the gate.
Although that lie was corrected by the Chief Constable later in the evening, the slurs on the fans would endure for decades to come. When Lord Justice Taylor reported his findings four months after the disaster, he confirmed that the central cause of the disaster was policing failure, and in particular the failure to close the tunnel to the central pens, which he called a blunder of the first magnitude.
Yet the report was followed by renewed police attempts to blame the fans at the original inquests, and then the devastating blow that was the verdict of accidental death. The families then embarked on nearly three decades of campaigning to vindicate the 96. It should not be forgotten that those years took their toll, and many of those who fought hard over the years did not live to see their fight succeed.
The establishment of the Hillsborough Independent Panel in 2009 finally provided the families and their supporters with some hope of progress in their unswerving campaign for justice. The publication of the panel's report in 2012 was a watershed moment, but in a sense it was only the beginning of another phase. Shortly afterwards, the verdicts of accidental death were quashed by the High Court and the long process towards Tuesday's conclusions began.
The new inquests have made legal history. They are the longest jury proceedings ever in this jurisdiction, taking 319 days of court time and hearing from hundreds of witnesses. Hundreds of thousands of pages of documentary evidence were disclosed. As lawyers, we will never work on a case like it again. The proceedings demanded an extraordinary level of public service from the jury, whose two-year commitment to their task was acknowledged by a standing ovation from the families when the coroner discharged them on Tuesday afternoon. Their conclusions show the value of the jury system in exposing state and corporate failings.
The impact of the Human Rights Act, which incorporated the much-maligned European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law, should also be recognised. The requirements of article 2 – the right to life – helped the families to achieve justice.
I can't say how the catharsis of victory feels after a 27-year fight for truth and justice. I've had only the briefest of glimpses of what that struggle has been like for the families I represent, and they continue to speak powerfully and eloquently for themselves. No doubt they will have a sense of catharsis among the many mixed emotions they are experiencing now. Whatever their feelings, it is certain that Tuesday's conclusions are a testament to their courage, determination and tenacity.
Kate Stone represented 22 families in the Hillsborough inquests.
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