Lawyers say officers will exercise right not to answer questions to avoid incriminating themselves in criminal proceedings
Police officers on duty at Sheffield Wednesday's Hillsborough football ground when 96 Liverpool supporters died in 1989 will refuse to give evidence to the new inquest into the disaster, their barristers have said at a pre-inquest hearing.
Lawyers for the three most senior surviving officers in command that day, and the Police Federation representing lower-ranked officers, said the inquest should be delayed for years until any possible criminal proceedings have been concluded. If held before that, said Paul Greaney QC, for the Police Federation, officers under investigation for possible criminal misconduct would exercise their right not to answer questions, to avoid the risk of incriminating themselves.
"Many of those witnesses will be under investigation for possible offences, including homicide, and there is potential for them to be prosecuted," he said to the coroner, Lord Justice Goldring. "It is likely there will be an increased incidence of witnesses refusing to give evidence by invoking the privilege against self-incrimination."
From the rows of bereaved Hillsborough family members in the large courtroom on High Holborn in London, there were audible gasps, and one said, quite loudly: "Outrageous."
John Beggs QC, representing Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, who was in command at Hillsborough, and the senior officers inside and outside the ground, Superintendents Roger Greenwood and Roger Marshall, supported Greaney's call for the inquest to be delayed.
Goldring refused, however, and ruled that the new inquest should start in early 2014. He said that waiting for the criminal investigation, which was being led by former Durham chief constable Jon Stoddart, and then any prosecutions and appeals, could amount to a six-year delay.
In his opening remarks, Goldring expressed sympathy for the families' anguish and grief, and emphasised the need for the inquest to be held quickly, given that 24 years have already elapsed since the disaster. The original inquest with its verdict of accidental death was quashed in December after a long campaign against it by the families of the victims.
"I bear in mind that over that course of time some of the bereaved have died, most recently, of course, Anne Williams," Goldring said. Williams, 62, who lost her 15-year-old son Kevin at Hillsborough, died last week. "Her death is a powerful reminder, if one were needed, that there is an urgency attaching to the commencement of the inquest hearings."
Michael Mansfield QC, representing some of the families of the victims, pressed Goldring to appoint his own staff to handle the evidence for the inquest, saying the families had no faith in the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which is gathering the evidence on police conduct during and after the disaster, and with whom Stoddart is working closely. Goldring said he would consider that request.
Goldring will decide next week the location for the new inquest, after the family groups disagreed about where they would prefer. Mansfield, representing the largest group, 71 families who are HFSG members, said their overwhelming majority view was for the inquest to be held in London. The principal reason, he said, was that London would be perceived as neutral in the bitterly contested history of Hillsborough, and there would be no possibility of "actual or perceived bias".
However Pete Weatherby QC, representing 20 families, and lawyers for two other families, argued London was too far for mostly Liverpool-based family members to attend in full, and somewhere neutral in the north, such as Preston, should host it.