I was lucky, or unlucky depending on your perspective, to begin my legal training when it was considered Quite The Thing for everyone involved to know a little Latin. Quoting the correct words at the judge at the correct time would demonstrate that you knew your stuff and were one of the gang. Latin maxims and terms were scattered through the language of law degrees like Roman coins in the English countryside.
Thankfully saner counsel prevailed and, by the time I started venturing into courtrooms, Latin had been put to one side in favour of a legal process where the non-lawyers might stand a chance of understanding what the heck was going on. Most of the maxims I had learned gradually slipped out of my head through lack of use. But there is one phrase that stuck, although I doubt I could give you the correct pronunciation. It is this:
Fiat justitia ruat caelum
and it means, ‘let justice be done, though the heavens fall’, neatly summing up that right must prevail and damn the consequences. In a battle between procedural correctness and what is morally right, the latter should always win. Throughout history, commonly during the anti-slavery and civil rights movements in the UK and US, judges have invoked these words to give legitimacy to their actions when doing something the rulebook forbids, but which can be universally accepted as right.
These words apply perfectly to the Hillsborough inquests and the families’ long fight for justice.
The inquests relating to the deaths of the Hillsborough victims (at the time numbering 95 people, as 22-year-old Anthony Bland was still on life-support) were initially delayed while the Taylor Inquiry was ongoing and there was a possibility of criminal proceedings. Once LJ Taylor’s Interim Report was published, the inquests resumed. However, because the Director of Public Prosecutions was still determining whether criminal charges would be brought, certain of the usual inquest procedures were changed.
The Coroner decided to hold a general inquest into the circumstances leading to the disaster, followed by ‘mini-inquests’ dealing with the specific facts relating to particular victims, with a small group being considered in each session. Perhaps most unusually for an incident of this nature, the evidence would not be challenged under cross-examination, instead being presented as fact to the families. The opportunity to ask further questions was denied as the evidence could not be examined further.
An additional controversy was the Coroner’s decision not to hear evidence from after 3:15pm on the day of the disaster, as he reasoned that by that time ‘the real damage was done’ and death was inevitable. Crushing was given as the sole cause of death for all 95 victims. The 3:15pm cut-off time – chosen because the first ambulance arrived in the stadium then – meant that medical personnel did not give evidence at the inquests. A verdict of ‘accidental death’ was returned by the jury.
The families have, understandably, always found that impossible to accept, yet an application for Judicial Review failed and the Stuart-Smith Scrutiny of evidence did not recommend that the inquests be reopened. Anne Williams in particular, the mother of 15-year-old Kevin, faced with inconsistencies in the witness statements of those who last saw her son alive and the expert pathology evidence, has repeatedly sought via applications to the Attorney General to have his inquest reheard and death certificate amended. All applications were denied, citing a lack of new evidence.
Liverpool fans knew that the release of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report meant that the journey was only part of the way over. The truth is now finally revealed, but the unravelling and overturning of the many contentious decisions made after the disaster has hardly begun. And a stunning blow was to follow, as Anne Williams – having been so much a part of the fight to expose the Hillsborough cover up – announced she has terminal bowel cancer.
In a recent article for Well Red magazine, I wrote that:
for many of us, the steps that follow [the publication of the Report] will take place in locations where we have little influence, as inquiries and inquests are reopened, criminal investigations and legal processes resume.
Yet perhaps that isn’t completely the case. Anne Williams’ supporters are petitioning the Attorney General to bring forward the date of the reopened inquest into her son’s death because of her illness. At the time of writing, it has over 35,000 signatures – enough for a response from the Attorney General’s Office. So far, that response has not been favourable.
Please, if you are eligible to do so, do not let that response dissuade you from signing the petition. 100,000 signatures are needed to force a debate in the House of Commons, which could be vital in speeding up the process so that Anne may live to see its outcome. Fair and balanced Hillsborough inquests are already 23 years overdue and further delays are inexcusable. While the procedures may say one thing, the right thing to do lies in the opposite direction and so – as it seems unlikely that the heavens will fall – Anne Williams deserves justice. She and the other families have deserved nothing less since April 1989.