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Wednesday, March 31, 1999 Published at 13:16 GMT 14:16 UK


Hillsborough families delighted at ruling

Victims' families have brought a private prosecution

Families of victims of the Hillborough disaster are "over the moon" at a ruling that their prosecution of two former police officers can go ahead - but angry they must pay costs for an appeal on funding.

The BBC's Richard Wells: "The victims' families have campaigned for years"
Former Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield and former Superintendent Bernard Murray have lost a High Court bid to block the trial.

They are accused of unlawful killing and wilful neglect of public duty over the 1989 football stadium disaster in which 96 Liverpool fans died.

The private prosecution is being brought by the Hillsborough Families Support Group.

Richard Wells reports: "They had acted unlawfully"
After the hearing, the Support Group vice chairman Phil Hammond said: "We are over the moon. This is a big victory for us and the sooner the cases go ahead the better."

Three High Court judges rejected the officers' argument that the Director of Public Prosecutions' refusal to halt the prosecution was "unreasonable, perverse and unlawful".

Lord Justice Laws, sitting with Mr Justice Cresswell and Mr Justice Latham, said the case brought by the lawyers for the two officers was "misconceived".

[ image: David Duckenfield: Further charge likely to be dropped]
David Duckenfield: Further charge likely to be dropped
He ruled that the DPP, David Calvert-Smith QC, had taken "a perfectly proper approach" when he decided to allow the private prosecutions to go ahead.

But he added that the DPP "might lawfully have decided to discontinue".

"The tragic events at Hillsborough have been the subject of repeated, detailed, thorough inquiries," the judges said.

"Nearly 10 years have passed. But the judgment was for the DPP to make."

The judges made a further ruling which makes it unlikely that Mr Duckenfield will face an additional charge of intent to pervert the course of justice.

Funding argument

They also overturned South Yorkshire Police Authority's decision to withdraw financial support for the defence of the two former officers - after the support group persuaded it that such funding was illegal.

[ image: Bernard Murray: Defence funded by South Yorkshire Police]
Bernard Murray: Defence funded by South Yorkshire Police
The judge said both officers should be able to rely on public funds when their trial goes ahead.

They said local police authorities "have power to provide financial assistance to officers and ex-officers in the defence of private prosecutions or judicial review".

South Yorkshire Police Assistant Chief Constable Ian Daines welcomed the court's ruling on funding the two former officers.

"It is important to officers of all ranks to know that, when they do their difficult and dangerous duties, if they find themselves prosecuted their police authority can support them," he said.

Families may pay costs

Mr Daines added that the Hillsborough families faced having to find "tens of thousands of pounds" in legal costs.

The three judges ruled that the decision to oppose the officers in court on the funding issue had led to "unnecessary lengthening" of the legal arguments.

Hillsborough Family Support Group chairman Trevor Hicks said the group will contest the matter of Mr Duckenfield's extra charge, the funding issue and the ruling on costs.

He said: "This practice is contrary to the public interest. It is public money and should not be used automatically.

"We do believe everybody is entitled to a fair defence but that does not mean an open cheque book. We believe it's double standards when police officers are automatically protected."

Mr Hicks said the family support group would now be calling on Home Secretary Jack Straw, in the light of today's decision, to reform the law.

"We believe legislation should be brought forward to make it only legal to fund in exceptional circumstances."

Costs decision 'a disgrace'

He described the decision to award costs against the organisation as "appalling".

"It's an absolute disgrace that bereaved families are going to have to dip into their own pockets," he said.

Mr Murray and Mr Duckenfield are due for committal at Leeds Magistrates Court on 19 April.

After the hearing, the two said: "We welcome the fact that the High Court has ruled that the police authority acted lawfully in deciding to provide funding for our defence."

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