Last year, the Human Rights Act played a crucial role in securing justice for the families of the victims of the Hillsborough Disaster. Now the government has announced plans to create the role of an “independent public advocate” to help support families going through similar experiences. What can we expect from such a role, and will it help safeguard human rights?
The Hillsborough Disaster
The Hillsborough Disaster took place during a 1989 FA Cup semi-final game between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, where ninety-six people were killed in a crush of supporters at Hillsborough Stadium.
False stories emerged that the disaster was the fault of the fans; that they had caused the crush by forcing their way into the stands, and then blocked the rescue efforts of police and emergency services. An inquest immediately after the event returned a verdict of “accidental death”, meaning that the deaths of the ninety-six fans were not unlawful.
The families of those who died refused to accept this, and campaigned for over two decades for a new inquest. In 2016, twenty-six years after the disaster, a second inquest returned a verdict of “unlawful killing” meaning that the fans were not to blame for what had happened.
How did the Human Rights Act help?
Becky Shah’s mother died at Hillsborough. Image Credit: Peter Marshall / Flickr
“Without the Human Rights Act we would never, ever have had the second inquest,” said Becky Shah, whose mother, Inger, died at Hillsborough. So what did it do exactly?
Article 2 of the Human Rights Convention, which is enforced in UK law by the Human Rights Act, protects the right to life. It means that the state cannot take the lives of its citizens, and must also take steps to help protect their lives. When someone dies at the hands of the state, or as the result of a failing by the state, that death must be properly investigated.
Article 2 also means that an investigation must explore the wider circumstances surrounding a death. So for the Hillsborough families, it means that they were entitled to know not just how their loved ones died, but the circumstances leading up to that.
What will an independent public advocate do for other families?
Image Credit: Peter Barr / Wikimedia Commons
The government has announced plans to create an “independent public advocate” to act on behalf of families in Hillsborough-style tragedies, and to make sure that the pain and suffering experienced by the Hillsborough families is not repeated.
There aren’t many details about what exactly this role will do. So far we know that the advocate will “act for bereaved families after a public disaster” and “support them at public interests”. Some background notes have said that the purpose of the advocate will be to keep the bereaved and survivors informed of progress in any relevant investigation. They would also be able to access information held by public bodies, and where appropriate, share that with the bereaved and survivors.
Is it enough?
The announcement of the creation of an independent public advocate has been met with a mixed response, with many questioning whether it goes far enough in making sure that families involved in future tragedies don’t face the same difficulties as the Hillsborough families.
Lawyers who represented many of the Hillsborough families said that the new role raises “more questions than it answers”. Many of them felt that the role does not take into consideration the importance of making sure that bereaved families can access funding to pay for independent legal representation – a vital step in making sure they can properly participate in any inquest or inquiry.
MPs should amend the Bill the Tories are calling a “Hillsborough Law” to include the measures the Hillsborough families actually called for.
— Andy Burnham (@AndyBurnhamGM) June 21, 2017
Andy Burnham, the newly elected Mayor of Manchester and long-time campaigner for the Hillsborough families, agreed, adding that the proposed measures should be changed to “include the measures the Hillsborough families actually called for”.
He wants to see the introduction of legislation which would make it a criminal offence for police officers and other public authorities to lie and cover up wrongdoing, and which would make sure victims and their relatives can access funding to help them make their case.
Image Credit: Twitter / @NatalieOxford
Sadly, public disasters like Hillsborough are not a distant memory. We only have to look at the tragic events of the recent Grenfell Tower fire to see that.
As long as these disasters occur, it is crucial that the Article 2 rights of individuals to know how and why their loved ones died are protected. There are still many questions to be answered – not only about the Grenfell disaster, but about how the creation of a new independent public advocate will help support that.
Want to know more?
- Read the full story on how the Human Rights Act helped the Hillsborough families
- Watch some of the Hillsborough families share their stories of the Human Rights Act
- Read our explainer on why the right to life is so vital