Chapter 7: Civil litigation

Claims on behalf of the bereaved and injured, including the cases of Alcock and others v Chief Constable and Hicks v Chief Constable

2.7.6 The first writs seeking compensation for injuries sustained at Hillsborough were issued and served on SYP and SWFC on 18 April 1989.

2.7.7 Documents disclosed to the Panel reveal that while there is no record of a response from SWFC, SYP undertook criminal records checks on the claimants. The purpose of these checks, on the Police National Computer and with the Criminal Record Office, remains unclear.[2]

2.7.8 A first meeting between SYP, their solicitors Hammond Suddards, the Secretariat to South Yorkshire Police Authority and the Police Authority's insurers, Municipal Mutual Insurance (MMI), was held on 19 April 1989.[3] The meeting discussed the insurance and legal implications of the received and anticipated claims. A representative from MMI set out the insurer's position:

Our interest is primarily a financial interest. We are providing an indemnity in relation to any liability that is going to be found to have been incurred by the Police Authority. Having said that, I would like to put on record very early that we are not looking to protect our financial interests at the expense of either the PR interest or any other interest of the Authority. We really want to hear what you want us to do in relation to protecting our common financial interest in the short term. In the long term I think things will evolve and there will be things to be done to which we will have no option, but that might be 3/4/5 years.

2.7.9 The uncertainty regarding where liability might lie was shared within the Home Office. Responding to a question from Frank Field MP regarding the availability of automatic compensation, officials at the Home Office noted that the issue of compensation would be complex and protracted.

2.7.10 It was 'by no means clear that someone or some organisation will be found to be liable'. In marked contrast to other disasters, such as the Clapham rail disaster, this ruled out automatic compensation. Officials considered it inevitable that the legal process would have to be pursued until liability was established in court.[4]

2.7.11 Further compensation claims were issued against SYP and others during the months that followed, but no steps were taken to progress proceedings in court until Lord Justice Taylor published his Interim Report on 4 August 1989.

2.7.12 Following the Report's publication - which criticised SWFC, SCC and others, but found that the main cause of the disaster was the failure of police control - on 18 August 1989 the insurers, MMI, presented the position at a meeting of the South Yorkshire Police Authority as follows:[5]

They reported that at that date, 701 claims had been received from the dependants of those killed or those who were injured, although Solicitors acting on the Steering Committee [of solicitors representing the bereaved and injured] estimated there will ultimately be at least 1,000 claims.

The Insurers having met with the Steering Committee in Liverpool together with the Sun Alliance Insurance Company who insure the Football Association and Sheffield Wednesday F.C. have so far denied liability.

At meetings with the Steering Committee it has been agreed that test cases will be held and it is anticipated there will probably be six of these covering the various categories of claim arising out of the tragedy.

The Insurers reported to the Authority that the full cost of the claims could be of the order of £15 million although members will have read press reports in which various parties, not least Solicitors acting for the claimants, have estimated the full cost as being as high as £50 million.  The limit on insurance taken out by the Authority is £8.5 million which means that any excess which the Police are found to be responsible for, whether by negotiation or arising out of the test cases, will have to be borne by the Authority.

The Insurers, at the Authority's meeting on 18th August, warned they may have to enter into negotiations with those representing the claimants if it is considered the climate is right to do so, and said they would welcome any views the Authority has with regard to the financial implications and also political implications which may arise. The Authority therefore resolved that the Finance and General Purposes Committee be requested to consider in detail the points made by the Insurers ...

Whatever the ultimate responsibility of the Police the Authority will have to bear any cost of compensation over and above insurance provision of £8.5 million. In the light of comments made by the Insurers at the Authority's meeting on 18th August and also the estimates of total costs of compensation there is a very real potential that the Authority will be involved in considerable expenditure.

2.7.13 Given this potential financial exposure, it was proposed that staff from the Police Authority would shadow MMI's work and the issue would be referred back to the Authority prior to any substantive decision.

2.7.14 Aside from the financial risk, there was also concern that civil claims might come to trial in advance of a decision from the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) on the issue of criminal proceedings against those found to be responsible for the disaster. At a pre-trial review hearing before Mr Justice Rose in the High Court on 26 October 1989, SYP applied for a 'stay' or postponement of the civil claims pending a decision from the DPP.

2.7.15 SYP's solicitors, Hammond Suddards, subsequently wrote in a letter to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS):

At the hearing, an unsuccessful application for a stay of the proceedings was made on behalf of the South Yorkshire Police, not in connection with possible prejudice to any Officer who may be the subject of the present inquiry but simply on the basis that it is difficult for the Chief Constable to prepare a case when Officers, rightly or wrongly, believe that they may be under investigation and, hence, are unwilling to co-operate in providing further statements.[6]

2.7.16 Having rejected the SYP application, Mr Justice Rose set 11 June 1990 for the start of the civil claims trial.[7] 

[2] SYP000160100001, see for example p1, PNC printout.

The position in relation to data protection law also appears to have been unclear. Following a later example of criminal record checking in response to a civil claim, the results of the check were released accidentally to the claimant's solicitor - alerting them that such a search had been made. The claimant's solicitor complained, writing to South Yorkshire Police that:

'In supplying it you appear to have breached not only the long-standing code of confidentiality and circumstances under which a record might be disclosed, but you have also breached the provisions of the Data Protection Act 1984. This is an extremely grave matter ...'

The response of the police officer who had released the information was to hold responsible the solicitor who had requested the search. He wrote: 

'I find it negligent on their behalf to first state they were entitled to view the record if they weren't so entitled and secondly then to release a copy of the convictions along with a copy of my covering letter to the solicitor's representing [the claimant]'. 

The issue appears to have been resolved following a conversation between the solicitors involved. SYP000160100001, p2 onwards.

[3] 'HILLSBOROUGH DISASTER - MEETING TO DISCUSS INSURANCE AND LEGAL IMPLICATIONS', 19 April 1989, SYP000123590001, pp280-290.
[4] Internal Home Office memorandum, 3 May 1989, HOM000015410001, pp1-6.
[5] 'FINANCE AND GENERAL PURPOSES COMMITTEE, Report of Clerk and Financial Officer', 15 September 1989, SPA000000730001, p1.
[6] Letter from Hammond Suddards to CJ Cleugh, Crown Prosecution Service, 30 October 1989, CPS000003750001, p14.
[7] 'SOUTH YORKSHIRE POLICE AUTHORITY, REPORT OF THE CHIEF CONSTABLE', 17 November 1989, SPA000000190001, pp1-6.