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Developments on the proposals for a Hillsborough Law

What is the Hillsborough Law?

The Hillsborough Law is not a law but a proposal for one. It is the shorthand used for the proposed Public Advocate and Accountability Bill which has not yet been introduced into Parliament.

The proposal for the law came from a review of the experiences of the Hillsborough families by former Bishop of Liverpool the Right Reverend James Jones - ‘The Patronising Disposition of Unaccountable Power’.

It was published in 2017 and detailed 25 recommendations to reform the system. It is those recommendations, and, what campaigners say are failures of criminal trials related to Hillsborough, which form the basis of the Hillsborough Law.

It would bring in a number of measures including:

  • A Public Advocate to act for families of the deceased after major incidents.
  • Giving bereaved families better access to money for legal representation at inquests -the measure would allow families, who often find themselves facing expensive QCs, to afford lawyers themselves - creating an equal playing field.
  • Put in place a duty of candour for all police officers and public officials which means they must be open and honest when something that goes wrong.
  • A Charter for families bereaved through public tragedy which would be binding on all public bodies.
  • A requirement that evidence and findings of major inquests must be taken fully into account at any subsequent criminal trials.
  • Clarification in law that major inquiries commissioned by government or other official bodies constitute “courses of public justice”.
  • A requirement that any criminal trials following a major inquest take place in a court with relevant expertise and status, rather than a crown court.

The Government response to the Jones Report was signing a Charter for Families Bereaved through Public Tragedy, known as the Hillsborough Charter in December 2023.

Recent Developments:

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) have agreed a report on the proposals for a Hillsborough Law publishing the report Friday 24 May 2024.

The report finds that the Government must go further to encourage transparency, candour and frankness to act in the public interest and to avoid a repeat of the failures made after major tragedies like the Hillsborough disaster.

The three key elements discussed in detail in the report are:

  1. a) the introduction of a statutory “duty of candour” on all public authorities;
  2. b) providing better access to funding for legal representation at inquests and

inquiries for bereaved families; and

  1. c) the establishment of an independent public advocate to provide assistance to

persons who are bereaved after major incidents.

The new legislation being called for would include a legal duty of candour, guaranteed legal funding for bereaved families at inquests and inquiries and an independent public advocate.

It is even more important for the law to be passed in light of the recent events such as the post office scandal and the report of the infected blood inquiry earlier this week which found the scandal “could largely have been avoided” and there was a “pervasive” cover-up to hide the truth.

“Institutional defensiveness” appears to remain a problem for public authorities, particularly when they are involved in public inquiries and inquests. This hinders efforts to establish the truth when things go wrong and stands in the way of fulfilling the State’s investigative obligations under Article 2 and Article 3 ECHR.

Enforcement of the proposed duty of candour

A key question for the duty of candour is how well it can be enforced. The report by the JCHR provides that if the proposals became law, it would be an offence for the chief executive of a public authority to intentionally or recklessly fail to discharge the duty to assist proceedings, inquiries or investigations. It would also be a criminal offence for individual public servants or officials ‘to mislead the general public or media’.

It is believed that by implementing these criminal sanctions within the Hillsborough Law it may increase the prospect of the duty being taken seriously, offering greater external mechanisms to pursue public institutions that fail to comply.

JCHR Report Conclusions

A general statutory duty of candour would help to ensure that the priority for public bodies is to establish what has gone wrong and needs to be changed in order to prevent future deaths, rather than protecting individuals and institutions from censure. It would also help inquiries become more effective and less protracted, benefiting the bereaved and survivors, and thus fulfilling the UK’s obligations under Articles 2 and 3 ECHR.

It is hopeful that now the JCHR has published this report and in light of the recent post office scandal and infected blood report The Government should consider introducing a statutory duty of candour more seriously and extend it to all public authorities, as called for in the Hillsborough Law.

To read more please find the full report here Human rights and the proposal for a “Hillsborough Law” (parliament.uk)

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