The Sports Law & Policy Centre | Crowded Out: Learnings from Hillsborough
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Crowded Out: Learnings from Hillsborough

By Abhinav Shrivastav

Introduction

The Hillsborough Stadium crush of 1989 (“Hillsborough Crush”) is a key moment in the history of sports arena construction and crowd management, as it led to the removal of standing terraces in all first division and second division football club stadiums and adoption of sound crowd management practices, through a reduction in capacity of all stadium terraces by 15% and the prohibition of the practice of free seating for ticket holders.

While these measures were adopted pursuant to the recommendations of the Hillsborough Stadium Disaster Report or the Taylor Inquiry report (“Taylor Report”), the Taylor Report failed to provide closure to the families affected by the Hillsborough Crush. The Taylor Report received much criticism due to the lack of transparent functioning and of public availability of documents concerning the practices of the South Yorkshire Police (“SYC”) (the policing organisation engaged in managing entry into the stadium) and the Sheffield Wednesday Football Club (“SWFC”) stewards (the persons engaged in managing crowds within the stadium).

In 2009 the British Home Office constituted the Hillsborough Independent Panel (“Panel”) to re-examine the causes of the Hillsborough Crush and make public disclosures of all relevant materials pertaining to the disaster. The Panel submitted its final report on September 12, 2012 (“Panel Report”). The Panel Report raises concerns of accountability for crowd management and emergency response practices at major events.

The Hillsborough Crush

In 1989, Hillsborough Stadium, the home of SWFC, was chosen as the neutral venue of the semi-final of the Football Association Cup, between Liverpool Football Club and Nottingham Forest Football Club. The Stadium consisted of four stands comprising standing and seated terraces and pens, with fans of the opposing clubs separated and allotted two stands each.

In the Leppins Lane stand (allotted to Liverpool fans), as kick-off approached, to relieve fan pressure outside the stadium due to the insufficiency of turnstiles, the SYP opened the exit gate to allow ticket holders to enter the stadium. The resultant influx of fans into pens 3 and 4 of this stand led to a human crush with some fans collapsing underfoot. The collapse of the safety barrier in these pens and attempts by fans to climb the side fences eventually led to the abandonment of the match.

Despite the involvement of emergency services providing medical care, the Hillsborough Crush led to the death of 96 people and left about 760 injured. Considering the magnitude of the incident, and the lack of clarity on responsibility, an inquiry into the incident, under Lord Justice Taylor, was instituted by Home Office of the United Kingdom Government (“Taylor Inquiry”). The Taylor Report was tabled before the United Kingdom Parliament in January 1990.

Taylor Inquiry and Report

The Taylor Inquiry was a comprehensive inquest into the causes of the Hillsborough Disaster. Rather than being a narrow inquiry into the Hillsborough Crush, its mandate was prospective and sought to effect reform in sports venue construction and crowd management practices, with the intent to “find facts and not apportion blame”. The Taylor Report also evaluated the risks associated with other sports arenas, and sought to allocate responsibility for crowd management within such venues.

Pursuant to its investigation, using evidence consisting largely of witness statements from the bereaved and injured, self-written recollections of officers of the SYP and representations by organisations such as the Football Supporters’ Association, SWFC and the Sheffield City Council, the Taylor Inquiry came to the following conclusions:

1. That at the time that the SYP opened the exit gate to quicken spectator entry, it ought to have closed pens 3 and 4 of Leppings Lane, as both were dangerously overcrowded at the time. In this respect, the Taylor Report added that the congestion in the turnstiles that led to the opening of the exit gate should have been anticipated and accommodated into the crowd management plan by SYP.

2. That the slow response of the SYP, despite the collapse of the safety barrier and the visible distress of the fans; and poor police leadership, led to the failure of timely alleviation of distress, which was only aggravated by the restricted size of the perimeter fences.

3. That the senior officers of the SYP failed to take key decisions in the management of fans’ entry into the pens, particularly pens 3 and 4 of the Leppings Lane and that these officers failed to take control of relief operations after the incident occurred.

The Taylor Inquiry also added that while alcohol consumption by fans and hooliganism did not contribute to the human crush, the fear that such behaviour by a small section of the fans led to the SYP’s adoption of a strategy directed towards controlling the crowd rather than ensuring their safety and comfort, which was another failure on the part of the SYP. Further, rebutting claims of senior officers of the SYP, that errant Liverpool fans were partly responsible, the Taylor Report criticised the SYP for attempting to shift fault through a vilification campaign against Liverpool supporters..

The Taylor Report ended with recommendations designed to limit the risk of recurrence of such incidents, which included:

1. That the stadia of all clubs that play in the first and second division of the English football league, the first division of the Scottish football league and all other national stadia are rendered all-seating venues.

2. That an Advisory Design Council, a National Inspectorate and a Review Body be constituted to oversee stadium construction and ensure incorporation of measures designed to enhance safety.

3. That gangways and perimeter tracks be incorporated, manned by dedicated personnel to monitor and act on any overcrowding or distress, and that the police and football club agree to a statement of intent that sets out each party’s functions in relation to crowd safety.

The Taylor Report also recommended changes to the manner in which police personnel monitor and admit spectators into the stadium, recommending that the officer in command be granted the discretion to postpone the match in case of overcrowding or loss of control, and that the police control room be provided with the results of CCTV coverage and of the number of spectators in the stadium, adding that the police control room should also be equipped with radio and communication equipment that is capable of overriding the channel used by the club and its personnel in the stadium.

The interim report of the Taylor Inquiry was also employed in the civil litigation for compensation, with both the SYP and the SWFC using it to place responsibility on the other party.

While the Taylor Report affected a reform in stadium construction and crowd management at sporting arenas in the United Kingdom, it was deemed insufficient by the affected parties due to the non-transparent manner in which it conducted its enquiry coupled with allegations of witness statement alterations. Thus, in 2009, the Panel was constituted to re-examine and review all available information on the incident and make disclosure of documents reviewed in relation to the incident.

Hillsborough Independent Panel report

The Panel submitted its report on September 12, 2012, and made available all documents that it reviewed in relation to the Hillsborough Crush on its website (http:/ /hillsborough.independent.gov.uk/). The remit of the Panel was to oversee the public disclosure of relevant information pertaining to the Hillsborough Crush and produce a report that adds to the knowledge of the public of the matter. In line with the mandate, the Panel Report is divided into three chapters, with the first chapter enumerating information known to the public; the next chapter detailing the material added to that information through the review of documents by the Panel; and the third chapter concerned with the process of maintaining an archive of the material.

The Panel Report highlighted the key factors that led to, or aggravated the incident, in particular, finding that:

(1) Repeated warnings of the risk of congestion, and the prior occurrence of overcrowding and crushing, at the Hillsborough stadium were ignored.

(2) The SYP, as evidenced from the relevant operational order, were more concerned with the segregation and regulation of the crowd, than with monitoring their safety and effecting their evacuation in an emergency.

(3) The management roles within the SYP were unclear which complicated communication, slowed down the decision making process, particularly when the overcrowding and crushing were evident from the CCTV footage available in the Police Control room. The Panel also found that the lack of effective communication led to SYP personnel failing to restrict spectator entry into the overcrowded pens 3 and 4 of Leppings Lane once the exit gate was opened.

(4) The segregation of fans did not account for the stadium’s construction, and warnings concerning bottlenecks in the route to the stands allotted to the Liverpool fans were ignored.

(5) The lack of effective communication among various agencies led to the sluggish response of the emergency services, and the failure to account of the severity of the incident. Furthermore, the Panel noted that the emergency services did not undertake a systematic assessment of priority for treatment and the emergency service operations lacked cohesion and coordination.

The Panel was particularly scathing of the SYP’s internal investigation after the incident, finding that the SYP instructed its officers to approach the information gathering process by considering themselves as “accused”, and that the SYP’s internal investigation emphasised aggressive crowd behaviour, involving drunk and obstinate ticketless fans. In particular, the Panel found that the decision to gather self-written recollections from officers, rather than using pocket-book entries, provided the SYP with the opportunity to review and alter ‘recollections’ prior to submission to the Taylor Inquiry. Further, the Panel noted that SYP officers were instructed to avoid highlighting the deficiencies of the senior officers of the SYP, and about 116 of 164 statements where substantively amended to remove unfavourable comments. The Panel also found that the process of review and alteration of unfavourable statements extended to the ambulance service as well.

In India, the relevant Police Acts applicable in states typically contain provisions enabling the police, acting through senior officers such as the Commissioner or Superintendent, to issue orders to regulate and control crowds at places of public amusement, such as concerts and sporting events. Further, at such events the relevant Police Acts authorise the highest ranked police officer present to take reasonable directions as necessary to maintain safety and manage the crowd at such events.

Apart from such regulation, where spectators incur injury due to lack of effective crowd management at a sports venue, the organisers of the event may be rendered liable to negligence. Such liability may be in the form of civil claims for damages or criminal sanctions.

While there is no case law directly on point, at a general level, the Supreme Court of India, in Jacob Mathew v. State of Punjab [(2005) Supp (2) SCR 307)], termed the tort (civil claim) of negligence as the breach of a duty caused by an omission of an act which a prudent and reasonable man would do or not do. With respect to the criminal sanctions for negligence, the court added that for an omission to amount to criminal negligence, it must be of a much higher degree with evidence that it was occasioned with the intent of causing harm.

The duty in this context is that of care to ensure that spectators are not subject to bodily harm in the arena, and thus where the organiser of the event fails to manage the crowd and ensure its safety, the organiser may be subject to civil and criminal liability depending on the degree of negligence involved.

Conclusion

While the Panel has enabled the disclosure of material pertaining to the Hillsborough Crush, it would be interesting if the Panel’s findings are employed to review the civil and criminal litigation undertaken after the Hillsborough Crush to account for the lapses that led to the incident.

Furthermore, both the Taylor Report and the Panel Report provide suggestions for practices to ensure coordinated and effective management of crowds and the management of any emergencies that arise therein, and offer an insight into practices employed by executive organs to avert responsibility. Thus, their inferences ought to be considered in the Indian context to ensure effective crowd management, safety and investigatory transparency.

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