What happened at Hillsborough?

On 15 April 1989, thousands of Liverpool fans travelled to Sheffield to see their team play Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup semi-final. Ninety-six men, women and children never returned home.

Before the match was due to start, a huge crowd built up at the Leppings Lane entrance to Hillsborough stadium. With only seven turnstiles to get in, the police opened an exit gate to let more people through.

In minutes, about two thousand fans came through the gate into pens three and four, which were already full. The high fences around the pens, designed to prevent pitch invasions, made it almost impossible for people to escape. A few made it out over the top of the fences or scrambled to safety in the stands above, but most were trapped.

In the chaos, hundreds were injured and 96 people died – the youngest of them just ten years old.

Photo: Chris Brunskill Ltd/Getty Images
Photo: Chris Brunskill Ltd/Getty Images

Soon, a false story emerged that the disaster was caused by the fans’ behaviour. Liverpool supporters were accused of being late, ticketless and drunk, of picking the pockets of the dead, of pushing through the exit gate and of urinating on the police.

When an inquest was held soon after, the coroner reached a verdict of ‘accidental death’.

The families of those who died fought hard to challenge this story. But for two decades, it was accepted as the truth by much of the media, the police, the public and the political establishment.

The Hillsborough families tireless campaigning and refusal to accept the official line led to a second inquest in 2014.

By this time, the Human Rights Act was part of our law – and it changed everything.

How did the Human Rights Act help?

The Human Rights Act protects ordinary people’s rights and freedoms, including the right to life.

This means that if anyone dies at the hands of the state, or because of state failings, the reason for their death must be fully investigated and the findings made public.

The Hillsborough families were able to use the Human Rights Act to ensure that the second inquest had a much wider remit. It meant that the jury had to look at the full circumstances surrounding each death, not just how the person died, and decide whether the actions of the police and ambulance services had played a part.

For the families of those who had been killed at Hillsborough, this meant accountability.

“I don’t think we would have got the verdicts in April of this year if it hadn’t been for the Human Rights Act… I think it’s probably one of the most important pieces of legislation that governs rights for UK citizens.” – Becky Shah, who lost her mum Inger

The second Hillsborough inquest was the longest jury case in English legal history, taking two years.

The Human Rights Act helped put the people who had died and their families at the centre of proceedings. They had access to the same documents as the coroner and could use these to direct their lawyers’ questioning.

In the first inquest, the dead had been identified only as numbers. Now, they were presented as people. Family members were called on to speak about the person they had lost, and the impact it had had on those who loved them.

“Whether they were a roadsweeper or a financial advisor, we were able to paint a picture… and present to the jury what that person was like… That these people were decent human beings who just happened to follow Liverpool football club.” – Barry Devonside, who lost his son Chris

The second inquest finished in 2016. It revealed major errors in the way the match was planned for, managed and policed. It found that mistakes made by the police had caused or contributed to supporters’ deaths, and it identified errors in how the ambulance service had responded.

Crucially, the jury concluded that the 96 people who died were unlawfully killed, and that the fans were not to blame for what had happened.

“If people let [the Human Rights Act] go, we’re lost. We need this kind of system to keep us getting truth and justice for people we lose.” – Steve Kelly, who lost his brother Michael