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IOPC 'pursued individual blame' says PSA as Hillsborough trial collapses

The Police Superintendents Association has called on the government to review the role of the IOPC and its “culture of blame” after a judge ruled there was no case to answer in the Hillsborough trial.

The trial of two retired South Yorkshire Police officers and a solicitor accused of perverting the course of justice following the Hillsborough disaster has collapsed after the judge ruled there was no case to answer.

Former chief superintendent Donald Denton, retired detective chief inspector Alan Foster and Peter Metcalf who was solicitor for the force in 1989, were charged in 2017 following an investigation by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) into allegations of a cover-up by police following the tragedy.

After four weeks of evidence, lawyers for Mr Denton, 83, Mr Foster, 74 and Mr Metcalf, 71, applied to have the case against them dismissed.

All were accused of two counts of acts tending and intended to pervert the course of justice and it was alleged they were involved in a process of amending officers’ statements to minimise the blame on the force following the disaster at the FA Cup semi-final on April 15 1989, in which 96 people died.

The trial had heard statements were amended to remove criticism of the force.

But expert witness Sir Robert Francis QC told the jury there was no legal duty of candour for police at a public inquiry.

In a ruling handed down at the Nightingale court at the Lowry theatre in Salford today (26 May), Mr Justice William Davis said the amended statements were intended for a public inquiry into safety at sports grounds led by Lord Justice Taylor, but that was not a course of public justice.

He concluded there was no case fit for consideration by the jury based on any of the six counts on the indictment.

Police Superintendents’ Association National Secretary, Dan Murphy highlighted the fact the IOPC chose to seek criminal charges against the retired officers, but today’s ruling has shown “it’s evidently clear that there was never a case to answer”.

“It is deeply concerning that an independent investigation, with a stated intention to establish the facts, concluded that there was a deliberate ‘cover up’ in the aftermath of the tragedy,” he said. “Something that has now been proven to be completely unfounded.”

Mr Murphy went on to say: “As a result, two former senior officers, who the court heard had both served the public with distinction for over 30 years have suffered seven years of investigation and prosecution.

He said the process had failed to serve the bereaved families or the wider public interest well.

“In the small number of cases where a police officer has knowingly acted in a corrupt or criminal way, it is absolutely right that they must be held to account for this and face appropriate justice” said Mr Murphy. “When this is not the case, officers should be given the respect of an appropriate balance of learning and accountability.”

“Clearly in this case there was a pursuit by the IOPC of individual blame. We therefore ask the Home Secretary to review the role, governance and objectives of the IOPC to ensure it seeks to deliver its mission, rather than enforcing a culture of blame within policing,” he added.

The IOPC told the Home Affairs Committee were moving from the culture of their misconduct investigations carrying an assumption of misconduct and away from laying blame on individual officers. 

Sue Hemming, Crown Prosecution Service director of legal services, said it was right for the CPS to prosecute the case but the decision not to appeal the ruling was made after “long and incredibly careful consideration”.

She said: “This is the first time that people have appeared in court for actions following the disaster. It has been a complex case looking at evidence from three decades ago and whether the defendants deliberately changed police statements in order to mislead future inquiries.

“It is crucial that we presented the evidence gathered by the IOPC investigation teams to a court and we have worked tirelessly to prepare the case for the jury to understand this evidence and any implications resulting from the amended statements.

“After long and incredibly careful consideration, especially for the families involved, we decided not to appeal the ruling. The CPS was right to bring this case and for a court to hear the evidence of what happened in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster.

“What has been heard here in this court will have been surprising to many. That a publicly-funded authority can lawfully withhold information from a public inquiry charged with finding out why 96 people died at a football match, in order to ensure that it never happened again – or that a solicitor can advise such a withholding, without sanction of any sort, may be a matter which should be subject to scrutiny."

The match commander on the day, David Duckenfield, was charged with gross negligence manslaughter in 2017 but was cleared in 2019 at a retrial, after the jury in his first trial was unable to reach a verdict.

In May 2019, former Sheffield Wednesday club secretary Graham Mackrell was fined £6,500 and ordered to pay £5,000 costs after he was convicted of failing to ensure the health and safety of fans arriving at the ground on the day of the disaster.

Sir Norman Bettison, a chief inspector in 1989 who went on to become chief constable of Merseyside and West Yorkshire, was charged with misconduct in a public office as part of the investigation but the charges against him were dropped in August 2018.

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