Spotlight on coronial justice

Rebecca Scott Bray

The Hillsborough and Sydney Siege Inquests

In the first half of 2016, two very different but significant inquests — on opposite sides of the world — entered their final stages. In Sydney, Australia, the inquest into the deaths resulting from the 17-hour siege at the Lindt café in December 2014 has been undergoing its final segment of public hearings before State Coroner Michael Barnes, after beginning in January 2015. The inquest has scrutinised the siege and events around it, including key questions such as why the gunman was on bail, what the authorities knew about him, and police decision-making in response to the siege. Meanwhile, on 26 April 2016, in Warrington, north-west England, following a two-year hearing beginning in March 2014, the jury emerged after two weeks of deliberation to deliver the conclusion of 'unlawful killing' in the Hillsborough Inquests before the Right Honourable Sir John Goldring, sitting as Assistant Coroner.

Both inquests are landmark coronial events: the Sydney Siege Inquest has held uniquely segmented hearings dealing with discrete issues, commencing just six weeks after the December 2014 siege — a promptness unheard of in Australian coronial history. The Hillsborough Inquests represent the longest coronial hearing in English history, heard in the largest purpose-built courtroom in England, and on an unprecedented scale.

The Hillsborough jury was tasked with answering 14 questions relating to the cause and circumstances of the deaths of the 96 people who died as a result of the fatal crush at Hillsborough Stadium, in Sheffield, England, on 15 April 1989, when they were attending the Football Association Cup Semi-Final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. The jury concluded that the 96 Liverpool fans who died were unlawfully killed. It also concluded that the behaviour of football fans did not contribute to the dangerous conditions, rejecting police claims to the contrary, and that there were errors and omissions in respect of the police planning and preparation for the match, and in the police and the emergency services' responses to the disaster. Following the inquests, commentators are now canvassing the possible paths ahead: suing the police, resignations, if not the disbanding of the South Yorkshire police, and criminal prosecutions.

The Hillsborough Inquests were the second to investigate the Hillsborough deaths. The original inquests (1990–91) were part of a constellation of numerous official investigations, reviews and inquiries into the disaster. Yet, despite an 11-year period of official scrutiny, many of the bereaved and survivors did not feel the truth of Hillsborough had been made public. In 2009, MPs Andy Burnham and Maria Eagle advocated for full public disclosure of information about Hillsborough, publicly supporting the Hillsborough Family Support Group's 20-year campaign. The UK government subsequently waived the 30-year rule protecting public records from disclosure and, in 2010, the UK Home Secretary appointed the Hillsborough Independent Panel, which included criminologist Phil Scraton, to oversee and manage the public disclosure of documents relating to the disaster, to consult with the Hillsborough families, and to work on archiving the documents. When the Panel released its report in 2012, it revealed a catalogue of official failings, including police alteration of statements, and the inadequacy of the inquest process, simultaneously dismantling the official 'truth' of Hillsborough, which had blamed the Liverpool fans for the fatal crush.

On 19 December 2012, the original Hillsborough Inquests, at that point the longest in British legal history, were judged a failure when the High Court quashed the original inquisitions, allowing new inquests to be held. The new Hillsborough Inquests opened on 31 March 2014. That the families of the Hillsborough victims wanted the original verdicts overturned, as the number one priority, and new inquests to be held, illustrates the signal importance of this part of the Hillsborough record. Ostensibly, with the conclusion of unlawful killing, after 27 years, the record has been corrected to achieve this crucial aspect of 'justice for the 96'.

In Australia, we are awaiting the outcome of the Sydney Siege Inquest. Nonetheless, the inquest has already highlighted some key issues in contemporary coronial law and practice, including the availability of coronial information. In this respect the Hillsborough Inquests and the Sydney Siege Inquest, both represent in different ways, the modern evolution of coronial publicity. The Hillsborough Inquests had a dedicated website, publishing daily transcripts of evidence. The Sydney Siege Inquest's webpage on the NSW Coroner's Office website links to rulings and limited inquest material. And although some hearings have been held in camera, the Sydney Seige Inquest has televised the opening address to each discrete segment, symbolising its public interest facets.

Such unprecedented 'offsite' access to inquests — coupled with the rise of social media coverage of court matters in real time — heralds a new manifestation of coronial justice in the digital age, which requires us to consider both the delivery and quality of coronial justice in hitherto unimaginable ways, as well as the ways these emerging frontiers of coronial justice are reshaping traditional ideas about publicity and public access.

REBECCA SCOTT BRAY is a criminologist, Co-Director of the Sydney Institute of Criminology, and Senior Lecturer in Socio-Legal Studies at the University of Sydney.


© 2016 Rebecca Scott Bray

(2016) 41(2) AltLJ 146
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