The trial has collapsed in the case of three men accused of altering the statements of 68 police officers following the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. The trial judge said that no offence had been committed, as the amendments were made in relation to a public inquiry, rather than a “course of justice”.
Police statements edited
Former police officers Donald Denton and Alan Foster, and former police force solicitor Peter Metcalf, were each accused of intending to pervert the course of justice. The charge arose after it became clear that the three men had altered police statements prior to an inquiry into the Hillsborough disaster.
The Hillsborough disaster occurred at the Hillsborough football stadium in April 1989. Overcrowding and police errors led to a fatal human crush in which 96 individuals lost their lives, with many more injured. A few months later, an injury was led by Lord Justice Taylor into what happened on the day. The purpose was to set out new safety recommendations for football grounds before the start of the new season.
To aid this inquiry, the statements of the police officers who attended the scene were produced. However, Denton, Foster and Metcalf decided that the evidence to be given to the inquiry had to be factual, without comment or feelings. The three men, therefore, edited the statements of 68 police officers.
Perverting the course of justice?
It was not until 2013 that these amendments became publicly known. At the inquests in 2014- 2016, the victims’ families argued that the statements were edited to cover up police errors. In particular, references were removed to the police practice of closing a particular tunnel when the ‘pens’ were full – a policy which largely contributed to the tragic events of that day.
The three men were subsequently charged with perverting the course of justice. The Crown Prosecution Service said that while the statements had originally been prepared for the Taylor inquiry, those involved would have known that other formal proceedings would follow. The edited statements would therefore have an impact on subsequent criminal proceedings.
No case to answer
While the case went to trial, it quickly collapsed when a submission was made that there was no case for the defendants to answer. That submission was upheld and the jury was directed to acquit.
The reasoning behind this is that the amendments were made in advance of a public inquiry, as opposed to a “course of justice”. In other words, the statements were edited in preparation for an administrative exercise, rather than a judicial process. It followed that the defendants could not be guilty of perverting the course of justice, meaning no offence had been committed.
Following the trial judge’s decision, the Crown Prosecution Service said that many would find the ruling surprising. The CPS legal director commented that the ruling suggested a publicly funded authority “can lawfully withhold information from a public inquiry, without the sanction of any sort”.
This case goes to show how the outcome of a trial can hinge upon complex legal arguments. Had the defence not submitted that there was no case to answer, the trial may have continued. This highlights the need for experienced legal representation – it may be the difference between a guilty verdict and an acquittal.
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