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Defending the Indefensible – There is no such thing

Representing Hillsborough Police Officers  – Why I am Taking Up the Challenge

Following on from the recent media reports about the planned police and IPCC investigations into the actions of the police in the Hillsborough tragedy, I thought it best to add my point of view before rumours get out otherwise of my intended involvement in the defence of police officers.

Mark George QC in his article for the Justice Gap

summarises the issues facing the investigators and I don’t disagree with anything he says. I do believe that the families of those involved in the tragedy deserve justice. However, I am always fearful of a knee jerk reaction where there is an instant attempt by the media and others to find someone to blame – and that blame has fallen squarely with the police.

I was asked a few weeks ago while I always feel the need to defend the indefensible. To which my answer was ‘there is no such thing as indefensible, everyone is entitled to a defence.’ However, it is true that I enjoy a challenge and if I have a choice will usually opt for representing the underdog, whether it be a football supporter who is classified as a hooligan by the public who do not even know the supporter, but has classified them purely due to the football team they support, or the person who finds themselves facing the death penalty despite the fact they were suffering from severe mental illness at the time of the killing. My blog on ‘How I defend Killers and Sleep at Night’ explains my thinking on this point.

This leads me on to my willingness to represent police officers who are facing investigation under the new Hillsborough investigations. These investigations will be unprecedented, and some officers will face years of investigation, inquiry and litigation from IPCC investigations to police disciplinaries to inquests and criminal proceedings. In all of these, the officers have a right to a fair hearing. The question has to be asked, as to how fair those hearings will be when they are up against a police service which will want to make individual officers responsible rather than the Force, where the IPCC will be well aware that anything other than recommending action against the police will likely result in media assassination. Meanwhile, the Tomlinson trial, Plebgate, the Hillsborough inquiry, and the phone hacking inquiry has meant that the public perception of the police is at the lowest it has been for many years, in light of this will a police officer facing a jury trial be in a fair position?

I believe that there may have been officers who acted without integrity during the tragedy itself and afterwards, but in general these will have been the higher ranks who had more to lose. It is the lower ranking officers who now have the most to lose – reputation, pension, and at worse liberty. These officers are entitled, as any other defendant, to the best defence that they can get. Those of us at the Bar who have the experience of the IPCC, police disciplinary proceedings, inquests and criminal cases are in the best position to offer that defence. We are impartial, independent and should not be swayed by public opinion, will not be pressurised by the Police Forces concerned, or the Government. It is in situations such as this where the independent Bar comes into its own.

Many colleagues have raised the point that by openly stating my support for the defence of Hillsborough police officers, I may lose my other client bases, those who bring actions against the police, those charged with serious criminal offences, and football fans who feel they are wrongly stigmatised by the police as hooligans. My response to this – I have represented police officers and others for years. It is my knowledge and experience that draws in my clients and not my affiliations (of which I have none other than to ensure that everyone has a fair trial). It is this broad stretch of work that ensures that I have in-depth knowledge of the criminal justice system, what I learn from representing police officers I can then use when bringing actions against the police, what I learn from representing those who are charged with criminal offences helps me when representing police officers.

A few years ago, while acting as a Prosecutor, I had a confrontation with a police officer during a debrief, in which I threatened to nail his shoulders to the wall if he shrugged at me once more. Obviously my comment did not go down well with him, and we spent the next few years avoiding each other, until he was facing disciplinary proceedings and he called me. When I asked why he wanted me to represent him when we clearly did not have a good relationship, he replied that as I had the guts to take him on in front of a room full of officers he felt I had the guts to see his case through and fight for him. And he was right, our past history did not matter, and I would hope that all my past and future clients feel the same, I don’t have to like them or what they stand for, and the same applies to their thoughts on me….what matters most is that they receive a fair trial or hearing and that the outcome is fair.