Chapter 7: Civil litigation


2.7.1 Part 1, Hillsborough: 'what was known', included an overview of the litigation pursued through the civil courts. In the light of the material now disclosed, this chapter reveals the 'behind the scenes' context, particularly concerning the apportionment of culpability for the disaster through the 'contribution hearings'.

2.7.2 Civil litigation is concerned with the rights and duties of individuals and organisations towards each other. In this context, it involves a claim for damages or compensation for loss or harm suffered as a result of a civil wrong ('tort'), brought by the individual or body that has suffered the loss or harm (the 'claimant' or the 'plaintiff') against the person or organisation that is said to be responsible for the wrong (the 'defendant'). The claim may be settled 'out of court' on terms agreed between the claimant and the defendant.

2.7.3 In the absence of any such settlement, however, if the claim is pursued to trial, it is heard before a judge in the High Court or the County Court, usually without a jury. On the evidence presented at trial, the judge is required to decide, on a balance of probabilities: (i) whether the claimant was in fact wronged; (ii) if so, whether the defendant is 'liable' for that wrong; and (iii) if so, the award of damages or compensation that the defendant should be required to pay in order to remedy the wrong suffered by the claimant.[1] 

2.7.4 The complexity of the events at Hillsborough, the number and range of people affected (survivors, bereaved relatives in the ground or watching on TV, rescuers, police officers) and the multiple layers of potential culpability - the South Yorkshire Police (SYP); Sheffield Wednesday Football Club (SWFC); the Football Association (FA); the structural engineers (Eastwood & Partners); Sheffield City Council (SCC); the South Yorkshire Metropolitan Ambulance Service (SYMAS); and others - meant that a diverse range of civil litigation claims was inevitable.

2.7.5 The scope of the litigation that ensued can be addressed in three broad categories: claims for damages on behalf of the bereaved and injured, including the appeals in the cases Alcock and others and Hicks; claims for damages on behalf of police officers, including the case of White and others; and 'contribution' or 'third party' proceedings brought on behalf of SYP against SWFC and their consultant engineers Eastwood & Partners to determine the level of contribution required from each party towards the sums to be paid on the damages claims arising from the disaster.

[1] In contrast to civil litigation, the criminal process relates to a wrong that is recognised in law as a 'crime', which is then the subject of a criminal prosecution brought on behalf of the state or the public (the 'prosecution') against the alleged wrong-doer (the 'defendant') in the Magistrates' Court or the Crown Court. In the case of serious crimes, the prosecution will result in a trial before a judge and jury in the Crown Court where, on the available evidence, (i) the jury will be required to decide whether they are sure beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant is 'guilty' of the crime as alleged; and (ii) if so, the judge will then decide what sentence should be handed down to the defendant by way of punishment and deterrence. Throughout, the victim of the alleged wrong-doing is not involved in the prosecution in any capacity other than that of a witness.