The shocking revelations of how the investigations were conducted into the Hillsborough disaster – and the delay of 23 years in uncovering the real issues – will only shake an increasingly disturbed faith in the British inquiries system.
Our own CEDR Foundation research in May this year, of more than 2,000 Britons, showed less than a third (27%) said they had confidence in the inquiries system.
As recently as 2004, concerns about the effectiveness of the inquiries system led the government to consult widely, yet the Inquiries Act 2005 avoided many of the key design questions, and failed to rethink the core model. What we see from Hillsborough and other more recent major inquiries – such as Hutton, Saville, Iraq (several) and Leveson – is that we have evolved a major process of social audit which is a vital instrument, but one whose design is left to largely mimicking the traditional adversarial courtroom.
So what could be done differently? Would the real events at Hillsborough have emerged had a qualitatively different inquiry process been used much sooner? One alternative, for example, would have been to have started with a focus not solely on the traditional legal ‘facts and judgment’, but one which also considered the emotional needs of all the stakeholders, particularly the families of the Liverpool fans. They were, after all, objectively the real ‘victims’ who from the outset had lost most in the tragedy. Such a stakeholder focus would have needed to search for acceptable answers primarily for the families, and thus it is possible any misleading information would have been uncovered far sooner.
The police and others – emergency services and ground staff – are, of course, also stakeholders. They could have been encouraged to join a process of mediated, open dialogue with families, rather than being shielded behind formal witness statements, and subjected to the pressures of organisational defensiveness. These latter dynamics are very clear from the documents laid bare by the Hillsborough Independent Panel. One of the key factors distinguishing the panel’s terms of reference and approach, under the chairmanship of the Bishop of Liverpool, was to make the families much more ‘owners’ of the process which the panel worked with. In traditional inquiries, victims’ families are often treated as just another witness (or observer) in the search for facts.
A process which encouraged face-to-face dialogue at the time with families and emergency services and ground staff, rather than the traditional formal witness examination, might not only have better served ‘truth and justice’. It might have also enabled greater readiness to own up to the failings in the public bodies at the time and earlier apologies and closure for the families.
Of course, this is only one possible alternative dimension. We need to consider other key questions, such as how to identify the best experience and diverse capabilities of the people conducting the inquiry process, and how we can make this more effective. Or the possibility of giving some thought to how to make an ‘appeals’ process relevant to inquiry findings. Part of the tragedy visited on the Hillsborough families was the effort required to reopen matters once judgements were pronounced.
It is because there has been dissatisfaction with numerous public inquiries that the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution last year embarked on its own Inquiry into Inquiries, which I co-chair with Lord Woolf of Barnes. Our research this year showed that 56% of the public thought that politicians have too much influence over the process and less than half (44%) believe public inquiries result in the recommended changes being made.
One of the lessons from how the many different forms of inquiry into Hillsborough were conducted should be that, when it comes to public inquiries, one size does not fit all. Equally, we need therefore to work much harder at discovering how to make this powerful social audit process regularly deliver better results for the public.
Dr Karl Mackie is chief executive/mediator at the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution, London