It is the Attorney-General, Dominic Grieve QC MP, who applies to the High Court to set aside and re-open Inquest verdicts. He is also the minister responsible for the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).
Yesterday we may have seen some tension emerge between the careful step-by-step approach being taken by the Attorney-General regarding the coroner verdicts, and the approach that the DPP was described to the Home Affairs Select Committee as wishing to take regarding an overarching investigation for Hillsborough criminal prosecutions.
I am not aware of a full transcript of yesterday’s Home Affairs Select Committee yet being available, although video of at least the earlier part of our session, when we questioned the current Chief Constable of South Yorkshire, appears to be circulating. However, I was struck by how excited Lord Falconer was, as a lawyer representing Hillsborough families, following a meeting with the DPP in advance of our evidence session.
Lord Falconer told our Committee that the DPP wanted to lead a single investigation, aimed at criminal prosecutions, which would subsume not just the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) investigation and any other related investigations, but the work of the Coroner in respect of re-opened inquests. Lord Falconer is now pressing for a meeting with the Home Secretary within the week to confirm this, a meeting which our Chairman, Keith Vaz MP, has agreed to try to facilitate.
More haste, less speed?
It is entirely understandable that the families would want such a single investigation aimed at pressing prosecutions quickly . However, I was concerned that Lord Falconer only seemed able to give broad brush responses when I pressed him on how all this could work. I am trying to get proper answers in at least three areas pending our debate in Parliament on Monday:
- If there is to be a special prosecuting regime for criminal charges in respect of Hillsborough, and this is to be designed by the DPP with the interest of the families of victims in mind, then how will we ensure that this is consistent with the usual rights of defendants and ensure that it does not open up new procedural points for those defendants?
- Given that the CPS will usually draw on the resources of an investigating police force when preparing a prosecution, which police force could credibly perform this function or, if the IPCC is to assist in that way, does it really have the capability, or, if the CPS is to act directly on the basis of the Hillsborough Report, how will that be overseen?
- Is it really possible or sensible to try to subsume the Coroner’s (re)Inquest process into an overall criminal investigation, as Lord Falconer seemed to suggest to our Committee that the DPP might be proposing, given the ancient, separate and specific jurisdiction of the Coroner, and all the risks and difficulties that such a radical departure from precedent may involve?
The Hillsborough families deserve enormous credit for bringing the process this far, and Lord Falconer paid a generous tribute to the current Prime Minister and Parliament for opening eyes which had previously been closed to this injustice. The campaigning and commitment of those families over so many years makes it all the more important that we get this right, and that the investigation aimed at prosecutions succeeds.
In my past dealings with Keir Starmer QC, my initial scepticism dissolved and, like many, I have been extremely impressed with how he seems to have conducted himself in his office as DPP. His preparedness to consider new procedures and his desire to act quickly in the interest of victims is wholly laudable.
Yesterday, however, I detected at the very least a significant difference in tone between the understandable caution of the Attorney-General’s statement on re-opening the Hillsborough inquests, and what Lord Falconer, for the victims’ families, reported to our committee regarding the approach he says is being taken by the DPP.
It is essential that this is clarified. While the Hillsborough families we heard from yesterday would clearly welcome speed in pressing prosecutions , we above all owe it to them to get the process right, so that it at least finally delivers the justice which they deserve.