IT COULD be more than a year before a decision is made on whether to charge those involved in the Hillsborough disaster with criminal offences, according to the senior officer leading the new investigation into the tragedy.
Despite a jury concluding that the fans were unlawfully killed, the two criminal inquiries that could ultimately lead to senior individuals or organisations such as South Yorkshire Police being brought before court will continue for a number of months.
Operation Resolve, which focuses on what happened on the day of the disaster and pre-match planning, and an investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission into the alleged cover-up in the aftermath of the 1989 disaster, will conclude around the end of 2016.
At that point, the Crown Prosecution Service is expected to take between three and six month to decide whether charges such as gross negligence manslaughter or misconduct in a public office will be brought.
Assistant Commissioner Jon Stoddart, the former Durham police chief constable brought in to lead Operation Resolve, said the verdict delivered by the jury after two years of evidence would not influence the decisions of the investigators or the CPS.
He said: “We have noted the determination of the jury but it is a totally independent process to the criminal inquiry.
“My inquiry, [the IPCC] criminal inquiry, they are not bound by the coroner’s and jury’s decisions. We will push on with our criminal inquiry, and we note the decision of the jury.”
The IPCC’s probe and Operation Resolve, both commissioned in the aftermath of 2012’s damning Hillsborough Independent Panel (HIP) report, have so far cost £70m and are expected to rack up a further £10m in staffing costs before they are complete.
Seven thousand exhibits not uncovered by the HIP report have been seized as part of the IPCC’s probe, which is by far the biggest in the police watchdog’s history.
Its centres around whether, as suggested by the 2012 report, accounts by officers were amended and misleading information given out as part of a cover-up to blame Liverpool fans for the tragedy.
A 1980s-style computer was acquired to look at the 167 floppy disks gathered as evidence, and a hand-writing expert brought in to go through some of the 5,200 police notebooks uncovered.
Rachel Cerfontyne, Deputy Chair of the IPCC, said: “Many documents required specialist treatment before they could be analysed.
“Some officers’ notebooks, for instance, were retrieved from lofts or found languishing in garden sheds.
“So as you can imagine, they were often water-damaged and in some cases covered in rodent droppings – so they had to be treated by experts.”
The IPCC investigation has already completed several of its strands, including looking at why blood alcohol tests were carried out on dead Liverpool fans at the scene and whether police provided deliberately misleading information to the media, culminating in The Sun’s notorious ‘The Truth’ front page.
But with criminal investigations still ongoing, and the possibility of charges, officials are staying tight-lipped about the conclusions they have reached about what happened in the aftermath of Britain’s worst sporting disaster.
Though no arrests have been made, a “large number” of people have been interviewed under caution by both sets of investigators. The number of suspects, either individuals or organisations, has not been revealed.
A total of 100 people refused to speak to Op Resolve officers, it has emerged, and 67 were unable to speak for medical reasons. Some of those were police officers, though they were not suspects.
Ms Cerfontyne told reporters at a briefing last week: “It is hugely important that people remember the inquests are not the end of the process.
“They are another very important stage in the Hillsborough journey – and obviously something the families and survivors have campaigned for for so long.
“The IPCC’s aim – and my aim – has always been to conduct a thorough and detailed examination of the events of Hillsborough and deliver, as best we can, a definitive account of what happened.”