Hillsborough disaster trial collapses as judge rules no case to answer

The trial of two retired police officers and a solicitor accused of perverting the course of justice following the Hillsborough disaster has collapsed after the judge ruled there was no case to answer.

After four weeks of evidence, lawyers for former chief superintendent Donald Denton, 83, retired detective chief inspector Alan Foster, 74, and Peter Metcalf, 71, who was solicitor for the force in 1989, applied to have the case against them dismissed.

The three men were each accused of two counts of doing acts tending and intended to pervert the course of justice and it was alleged they were involved in a process of amending officers’ statements to minimise the blame on South Yorkshire Police following the disaster at the FA Cup semi-final on April 15 1989, in which 96 Liverpool fans died.

Retired police officers Donald Denton and Alan Foster and solicitor Peter Metcalf, who acted for South Yorkshire Police following the Hillsborough disaster (PA)
Retired police officers Donald Denton and Alan Foster and solicitor Peter Metcalf, who acted for South Yorkshire Police following the Hillsborough disaster (PA)

In a ruling handed down at the Nightingale court at the Lowry theatre in Salford on Wednesday, judge Mr Justice William Davis said the amended statements were intended for a public inquiry into safety at sports grounds led by Lord Justice Taylor, but that was not a course of public justice.

He concluded there was no case fit for consideration by the jury based on any of the six counts on the indictment.

In the ruling, he said: “I repeat my observation about the anxiety and distress being felt by the families of those affected by the Hillsborough disaster.

“These proceedings have been very drawn-out following a lengthy trial process involving the match commander.

“I know the strength of feeling there was after his acquittal. I am aware that these proceedings also have been observed with interest.

“However, whatever the anxiety and distress, I have to determine whether there is evidence to support the particular criminal offence with which these defendants have been charged.

“In concluding that there is not, that is all I do.”

The trial had heard statements were amended to remove criticism of the force.

But expert witness Sir Robert Francis QC told the jury there was no legal duty of candour for police at a public inquiry.

The collapse of the trial was met with dismay from the Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham, who tweeted: “This is a disgrace and so disrespectful to the families.”

He also called for the introduction of what he called a “Hillsborough Law”.

The Crown Prosecution Service defended its decision to prosecute, saying it was “right to bring this case and for a court to hear the evidence of what happened in the aftermath” of the disaster.

Sue Hemming, CPS director of legal services, said: “What has been heard here in this court will have been surprising to many. That a publicly-funded authority can lawfully withhold information from a public inquiry charged with finding out why 96 people died at a football match, in order to ensure that it never happened again – or that a solicitor can advise such a withholding, without sanction of any sort, may be a matter which should be subject to scrutiny.”

But she said the decision not to appeal the judge’s ruling was taken after “long and incredibly careful consideration”, including for the families of the victims.

Mr Denton, Mr Metcalf and Mr Foster were charged in 2017 following an investigation by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) into allegations of a cover-up by police following the tragedy.

Sir Norman Bettison, a chief inspector in 1989 who went on to become chief constable of Merseyside and West Yorkshire, was charged with misconduct in a public office as part of the investigation but the charges against were dropped in August 2018.

The match commander on the day, David Duckenfield, was charged with gross negligence manslaughter in 2017 but he was cleared in 2019 at a retrial, after the jury in his first trial was unable to reach a verdict.

In May 2019, former Sheffield Wednesday club secretary Graham Mackrell was fined £6,500 and ordered to pay £5,000 costs after he was convicted of failing to ensure the health and safety of fans arriving at the ground on the day of the disaster.

Speaking outside court, Jonathan Goldberg QC, who represented Mr Metcalf, said his client was “grateful” for the ruling, adding that accusations of a cover up were “false” and labelled the trial a “witch-hunt”.

Paul Harris, solicitor for Mr Foster, accused the CPS of pursuing his client with “weak evidence” and added: “This case, at the hands of the IOPC and CPS, has been a shameful waste of public resources at a time when money can not and should not be wasted.”

Mr Denton’s solicitor Mike Rainford said there were “serious questions” for the IOPC and CPS over the costs of the investigation, which he said amounted to at least £70 million.