Hillsborough families inspire our fight to Save Our HRA

Posted by Sam Hawke on 27 April 2016

Twenty-seven years ago, 96 people died at Hillsborough football stadium in an appalling tragedy compounded by cover-up and untruth. It is only now – with the jury’s verdict that those who died were unlawfully killed – that their families have begun to receive anything like justice for their loved ones.

The road to this verdict has been a tortuous and treacherous one. During the first investigations, as the Hillsborough Independent Panel reported in 2012, 164 police witness statements were altered, 116 of which were doctored to remove comments unfavourable to the South Yorkshire police. A total of 260 police accounts are now being investigated by the Independent Police Complaints’ Commission.

And despite all the evidence that the dead were blameless, officers took blood samples from them – including from children – to suggest that they were somehow wrongdoers, not victims.

It only emerged during this inquest that the Commanding Officer had lied when he claimed that fans had gained “unauthorised access” to a section of the stadium, contributing to their deaths – when he’d in fact ordered the gate to be opened himself.

The jury found otherwise. The victims were in no way to blame for the multiple police and other failures leading to the terrible events of that day. Their vindication was the result of the colossal efforts of their families, who refused to stop fighting for the truth. Now, they have it.

Yesterday’s historic verdict was met with moving celebrations on the court-room steps and covered extensively in most of the press. Yet elsewhere in the press, Government ministers were lining up to repeat their commitment to scrap the Human Rights Act and threatening withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights.

Why is this relevant? Because the Hillsborough verdict would not have been possible without the Human Rights Act.

It’s Article 2 of the Convention – which our Human Rights Act enshrines and protects the right to life – that got victims of the disaster the wide-ranging inquest they deserved. Before the Act, the UK’s coronial law didn’t include a requirement to investigate the surrounding circumstances of a person’s death. Through a series of cases brought under the Human Rights Act, it has been held by the UK’s own courts that a person’s right to life – in cases where the state has failed to properly protect it – requires a full investigation into what happened.

After a fresh inquest was ordered in 2012, an Article 2-compliant inquest was undertaken. This meant that the jury could examine how and in what circumstances the 96 died. Without Article 2, the families of the victims would not have been able to achieve yesterday’s wide-ranging and critical verdict.

And the same is true for others. The Hillsborough verdict comes almost a week after the end of the trial of two former soldiers accused and acquitted of raping of Cpl Anne-Marie Ellement, a Royal Military Police officer stationed in Germany.

Cpl Ellement killed herself as a result of bullying and “work related despair” in 2011. A full inquest into her death and a criminal trial were only ordered after her family – with the assistance of Liberty – brought or threatened proceedings under the Human Rights Act.

And there’s more. The family of Private Cheryl James – found dead at the Deepcut barracks in 1995 – were only able to secure access to materials held by the authorities, persuading the Court that there should be a fresh inquest, by using the Human Rights Act. The verdict is expected next month.

The Human Rights Act is also helping the family of Alice Gross, who was murdered two years ago at the age of 14. Represented by Liberty, her family successfully argued that Article 2 requires a proper investigation into the broader circumstances leading up to her murder – so that, as her family have said, we can “prevent this kind of thing happening again”.

It’s difficult to see why some would seek to attack such a crucial piece of legislation. All that the Human Rights Act required was for the Hillsborough inquest to get at the truth. Now, the same newspaper that claimed to rely on that very concept – to slander the victims just after the tragedy – continues to attack the means by which its victims received justice yesterday.

Without Article 2 of the Human Rights Act, the victims of the Hillsborough disaster and their families would have had to settle for something much less than justice.

In 2012, Liberty honoured the Hillsborough campaign groups for their long walk to justice. Now we again pay tribute to their fearlessness. Their determination will inspire our fight to save the Human Rights Act. We hope their struggle will ensure that those seeking answers from the State will never have to walk alone.