THE Home Secretary has challenged the huge public bill being run-up by former police officers involved in the Hillsborough inquests and warned their legal costs should be brought down to the same level as that being paid on behalf of victims’ families.
Theresa May has told the South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner, Shaun Wright, that public funding of legal fees currently being paid on behalf of former chief supt David Duckenfield and seven other former senior officers needs to be reduced and she plans to cap the amount of extra central funding provided to help the force pay a costs bill that has now topped £5.7m.
Mrs May also warned against creating an impression police officers are being treated more favourably than families of the bereaved, who are having their legal costs at the new inquests met separately by the Home Office.
The Home Secretary’s stance has emerged in the content of a letter to Mr Wright released following a freedom of information request. A letter from Mr Wright in response accused the Home Office of delays and lack of cooperation following a plea for extra money to pay the legal bill which has “impeded” an effective and efficient use of public resources.
The controversy comes in the wake of Mr Wright’s request to the Home Secretary for special grant funding to help meet the costs of former senior officers entitled to representation at the Hillsborough inquests. The fresh inquests were ordered following the quashing of the original 1991 verdict of accidental death.
So far, two firms of solicitors representing eight former officers - Lewis Hymanson Small and Burton Copeland - have already billed more than £5.7m in total. The rapidly escalating cost had the potential to impact on money available for operational policing which prompted a formal approach, last November, for extra funding on top of the force’s £250m annual budget.
But Mrs May’s concerns about costs have been laid bare in a letter to Mr Wright, dated June 12, which while agreeing to an unspecified level of Home Office support also makes plain costs should be reined in.
The letter says: “Before turning to the level of reimbursement, I would urge you to consider very carefully the overall level of public funding which is being allocated to the legal representatives of the former police officers involved. The appearance of providing police officers with more advantageous representation than the bereaved families is one which will echo the experience of the families at the original inquests. As you will appreciate, this is deeply resented by the families concerned.
“In terms of Special Grant, it is my view that the level of reimbursement should not exceed that which is being provided to the families. I will therefore be applying a cap on the level of reimbursement from Special Grant which will apply to the hourly rate, a limit on the number of hours and days and limits on expenses for solicitors and counsel, based on existing and planned case plans.”
“As part of the work you are doing to review the legal costs, I am requesting that you consider whether the legal fees you have agreed to pay for the eight former officers can be negotiated downwards to the same hourly rate and daily rates as that which are paid under the Families’ Legal Representation Scheme.
“I am aware that the rates that were agreed for the Families’ Scheme have only been provided to you very recently... However, it is my view that there is scope for further savings within the agreement that you have negotiated with the solicitors.”
Mr Wright approved funding after receiving applications from the former officers last year.
Police and crime commissioners have the discretion to fund costs for serving or former officers involved in legal proceedings. A Home Office circular states that there is a presumption requests for costs will be met favourably though each case should be judged on its own merits.
Mr Wright wrote back to the Home Secretary on June 24, and said: “Although I was clearly relieved to receive the indication that special grant funding will be made available, I was also disappointed with some of the comments made in the letter, and with the lack of certainty as to the detail of the funding granted, and with the delay that occurred with the consideration of my application.
“In the absence of guidance within Home Office Circular 43/2001 and elsewhere, or from your officials despite numerous approaches from my office, I have done my utmost to ensure adequate processes have been put in place… And the delays and lack of co-operation over the last eighteen months has impeded me from discharging my statutory obligations to ensure an effective and efficiency(sic) use of public resources.”
Asked about the exchange of letters, a Home Office spokeswoman said: “The Home Secretary has been clear that the level of reimbursement will not exceed that which is being provided to the families.”
Lewis Hymanson Small is representing former chief superintendents David Duckenfield, Roger Greenwood, Terry Wain and Donald Denton plus former superintendent Roger Marshall at the inquests into the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans who died following a fatal crush at Sheffield Wednesday’s ground in April 1989.
Former deputy chief constable Peter Hayes and former assistant chief constables Stuart Anderson and Walter Jackson are being represented by Burton Copeland.