Lawyers to Hillsborough relatives draft Public Authorities Accountability Bill

The legal teams representing the relatives of 96 people who died at Hillsborough have published a new law that would compel public officials to tell the truth at inquiries.

The draft Public Authorities Accountability Bill is intended to codify the public law duty of public authorities and public servants to tell the truth and act with candour, the teams said. It can be viewed here alongside explanatory notes.

The legislation would apply both generally and specifically with respect to proceedings, inquiries and investigations. It would also require all public institutions to have a code of ethics.

The Bill has been submitted for consideration to the review being carried out by Bishop James, who was appointed by the Prime Minister shortly after the 26 April 2016 inquiry conclusions to consider what lessons could be learned from the disaster and its aftermath. The inquiry had concluded that the 96 had been unlawfully killed.

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The Hillsborough Law website seeks to address suggestions that the Bill would unfairly criminalise public officials simply doing their job.

“Hiding the truth from the public should never be part of a public servant’s job," it says. "The ‘Hillsborough Law’ sets a very high bar for the finding of criminal responsibility and only creates offences where there is intentional or reckless disregard or contravention of the duties. It does not criminalise negligent or careless behaviour, or indeed any behaviour that could conceivably be part of a public servant’s duty."

The website also says that nothing in the ‘Hillsborough Law’ would prevent public authorities and servants from being able to properly defend their actions or their position. “It simply requires that they do so honestly and with candour. No public institution should be worried by a duty to honestly assist court proceedings, official inquiries and investigations.”

It also says that the Bill would build on the duty of candour introduced in the NHS in 2014 after the Mid Staffs NHS Foundation Trust Public Inquiry. “Legislation isn’t the answer to creating a culture of honesty and candour- but it is part of the answer," it argues.

Pete Weatherby QC, a barrister at Garden Court North and one of the authors of the draft bill, told The Guardian: “There was a problem of pervasive institutional defensiveness, a culture of denial [during the inquest]. A duty of candour would allow the bereaved and other citizens to cut through the difficulty of the law.”

Weatherby also argued that the law would also “empower ordinary, decent public officials” to give evidence and prevent “cover-ups”.

Mark George QC, also of Garden Court North, said: “It’s not enough that the lessons of the disaster itself should be learned, although hopefully they were learned a long time ago now and most football stadia are very different places to what they were in 1989. But it seems pretty clear that in other ways lessons have not been learned by the authorities who ostensibly exists in order to serve the public but all too often seem to put their own institutional reputation before their duty to the public.

“It would be a fitting tribute to the dead and injured of the Hillsborough disaster and the families who fought so long and so valiantly to get justice if this case saw an end to cover-ups and denials and a recognition by public authorities and other institutions that they must be open and transparent in the future. When they make mistakes however serious they may be the onus must be on them to own up. Only that way can we really be sure these institutions do learn the lessons of their mistakes. If ‘Hillsborough Law’ achieved that, it would be a very welcome reform."

The Hillsborough Law website said: "The families of those who died in the Hillsborough Disaster have spent 27 years fighting not only for justice for their loved ones, but so that what happened to them can never happen again. The recent Hillsborough Inquests made it all too clear that not enough has changed when it comes to public institutions acting in the public interest. It is past time to put that right."