Two of Yorkshire’s finest legal minds were at the heart of the Hillsborough inquests. They tell Grant Woodward about their search for the truth.
AT the end, amid the tears and the jubilation, Ruth Bundey saw something she has never experienced in a legal career stretching back several decades.
“Each member of the families shook the hands of the jurors,” she says. “I’ve never seen that before, although of course no one has seen an inquest like this before. I think the jury really felt then that they had performed an incredibly important service.
“Some family members were so overcome they were hugging them. It was wonderful. That in particular will stay with me.”
The Leeds-based solicitor represented three of the bereaved families at the Hillsborough inquests, her questioning helping to secure the unlawful killing verdict that exonerated the supporters and laid the blame firmly at the door of South Yorkshire Police and the South Yorkshire Metropolitan Ambulance Service.
But amid the relief at the result, there is palpable anger too that the apologies of the past seemed to be forgotten, that the same old accusations were levelled at the dead. That the families’ distress was prolonged by the positions adopted by the two organisations, as they sought once again to deflect blame on to fans.
“There had been these fulsome apologies from Chief Constable David Crompton himself when the Hillsborough Independent Panel report was published,” says Bundey.
“However, those representing South Yorkshire Police asked questions on the basis that drunken, ticketless, late fans had contributed to the disaster – which of course was nowhere in the apology that had previously been expressed.”
She says an “extraordinary scenario” was developed by the legal team representing South Yorkshire Police to the effect that Gate C (which led to the already overcrowded central pens) had not been opened on the instructions of the match commander David Duckenfield, as he himself admitted, but had been opened either by a junior officer or a steward.
“It was nonsense and prolonged the inquest. And the police were not doing that in isolation. The lawyers representing the interests of Yorkshire Ambulance Service pursued a defence that no lives could possibly have been saved by a quicker response, which was demonstrably untrue.
“When the inquests began in March 2014 the jury were told they would last possibly nine months. Once everybody started repeating these dreadful allegations all over again it became longer and longer. It needs to be established exactly how that was allowed to happen.”
She now supports calls for the Home Secretary to apply remedial measures to South Yorkshire Police, sending in a team to carry out a “root and branch” examination of the beleaguered force following the suspension of Chief Constable David Crompton.
Bundey, of law firm Harrison Bundey, represented the families of Peter Burkett, Pat Thompson and Arthur Horrocks at the inquests. She says it was a “privilege” to work for them.
“They showed a huge amount of dignity. Just very occasionally over the two years there was a murmur but everyone who came to the inquests just sat there and gritted their teeth and listened, despite how hard it was.”
She admits the end goal – the securing of the unlawful killing verdict denied the families at the original inquests a quarter of a century earlier – was always in the balance.
“We hoped we would get it because it was justified on the facts but we couldn’t predict. The relief and the joy and the tears when it was announced, that was one moment when the public gallery could not be quiet.”
Paul Greaney QC, of New Park Court Chambers in Leeds, also played a crucial role in proceedings, gunning in particular for former Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, who had been in charge of policing on the day of the disaster.
Acting for the Police Federation at the inquests, it was his task to give a voice to the rank and file officers who were on duty at Hillsborough on the day and were subsequently scapegoated by senior officers.
His questioning resulted in the vital admission by Mr Duckenfield that his failings were a direct cause of the deaths of all 96 people.
“There has understandably been a degree of confusion as to why we were the ones who took Duckenfield on very vigorously,” says Greaney.
“It was so that there should be public awareness that the police cannot be just lumped together for the purposes of Hillsborough and that the junior officers stand in a quite different position from the force as a corporate body and from the senior officers.
“It should be understood that our members were doing their best in terrible circumstances. The problem was that they had been let down by a lack of genuine leadership.
“Of course you can’t compare what they have been exposed to with what the bereaved families have been through. But they had also been let down very badly by senior police officers.”
Each officer who gave evidence at the inquest was asked if they would be prepared to meet the family of the victim they endeavoured to save. Without exception, says Greaney, they all agreed.
“I personally saw some very moving meetings between officers and members of bereaved families. One of the things that was acknowledged in the press conferences given by the bereaved families was that a lot of police officers who did their best on the day have been seriously traumatised.
“I have experienced officers in great states of distress at the thought of having to give evidence, to relive the experiences they had on the day. There were officers that quite literally did not go back to work as a police officer after April 15, 1989.
“What we wanted to achieve was an understanding that our members, with a few exceptions, but a very small number, behaved courageously, decently and humanely on the day in circumstances of great confusion that were not of their making but were the result of inadequate leadership.
“A lot of very good and decent police officers will now be tarnished by the public perception of South Yorkshire Police.”
Ruth Bundey is determined that the reckoning does not end here. The families want those responsible for the alleged cover-up in the days and weeks after the disaster to be brought to justice.
“The Home Secretary has said the Independent Police Complaints Commission and Operation Resolve must be given to the end of the year to consider criminal charges,” she says.
“I think that is right. The families have waited 27 years, they can wait another nine months, particularly if, as we hope, there will be positive outcomes to those investigations.
“Given the evidence that has been uncovered and the jury’s conclusions, it would be a terrific disappointment if no one was held to account.”
Hillsborough: what happens next?
Two criminal investigations set to conclude at the turn of the year will consider whether criminal charges should be brought against any person or corporate body. The Indpendent Police Complaints Commission are looking into alleged police misconduct and claims of a cover-up in the wake of the disaster.
Offences under investigation include conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, perjury and misconduct in public office.
A total of 260 eyewitness accounts that appear to have been amended are being studied, along with claims police officers provided deliberately misleading information to the media.
Allegations of police surveillance of Hillsborough families and concerns that police decisions were influenced by membership of the Freemasons also form part of the investigations.