A senior barrister who repeated discredited police allegations about the behaviour of Liverpool supporters at the Hillsborough disaster has been cleared of misconduct by his profession’s Bar Standards Board (BSB).
Jonathan Goldberg QC made his remarks last May in a BBC interview after the collapse of the final Hillsborough-related criminal trial, claiming that late-arriving Liverpool supporters had caused “a riot” at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough, and crushed “innocents” who had arrived early.
Goldberg also made a speech outside the court, where he had represented Peter Metcalf, the then South Yorkshire police solicitor, who was acquitted of perverting the course of justice for advising that dozens of police officers’ written accounts should be amended.
Goldberg described the prosecution of Metcalf and two former South Yorkshire police officers as “a witch-hunt”, and said the money spent on criminal investigations into the disaster and its aftermath “would have been better spent on building new hospitals or schools, perhaps in Liverpool”.
Many relatives of the 97 men, women and children killed at Hillsborough, and the mayors of Liverpool city region and Greater Manchester, Steve Rotheram and Andy Burnham, complained to the BSB about Goldberg’s remarks.
The evidence of South Yorkshire police officers, accusing Liverpool supporters of drunkenness and blaming them for the disaster, has been repeatedly rejected: by Lord Justice Taylor in his 1989 public inquiry; by the Hillsborough Independent Panel in 2012; by three senior judges, including the lord chief justice, when they quashed the first inquest in 2012; and by the jury at the 2014-16 inquest.
The BSB decided, however, that Goldberg had not breached the professional standards expected of barristers, and said it remained “reasonable”, protected as a matter of free speech, for somebody “in good faith” to repeat the original police allegations.
Bereaved families, survivors and supporters fought through three decades to disprove the police allegations, and against the 1991 first inquest verdict of accidental death. The new inquest jury determined in 2016 that the then 96 victims were all unlawfully killed due to gross negligence manslaughter by David Duckenfield, the South Yorkshire police officer in command at Hillsborough. Having heard the police allegations against the supporters extensively, the jury fully rejected them, and determined that no behaviour of Liverpool supporters contributed to the disaster.
Duckenfield was acquitted of gross negligence manslaughter in 2019, after a trial at which his barrister again highlighted allegations of misbehaviour against supporters.
Goldberg said in his BBC interview that Liverpool fans’ behaviour was “perfectly appalling on the day, causing a riot”, and that those people, let in by police through an exit gate at 2:52pm, “crushed to death … complete innocents, who were at the front of the [terrace] pens, who had arrived early and were not drunk and were behaving perfectly well”.
Although some police officers originally propounded that narrative, that the people who died were all in the ground early, the 2016 inquest found by tracking their movements that 30 of the 96 had themselves come through the exit gate at 2:52pm.
However, in its decision clearing Goldberg, the BSB said it was “reasonable” for him to repeat the police case, even though there remains “significant controversy” about it, and that the right of free speech allows somebody to criticise legal findings.
“The [BSB] panel were of the view that it cannot be said, especially in light of the contemporaneous police accounts, that no reasonable person in the position of Mr Goldberg can in good faith have formed the view that he expressed.”
Margaret Aspinall, whose son James, 18, died at Hillsborough, said families and survivors had fought for 30 years and “the truth has been proved”. “But it’s no surprise that they cleared him because as we’ve found, the establishment protects its own,” she said.
Goldberg declined to retract his remarks or apologise after the uproar last year, instead issuing a “clarification”, saying he had not intended to express those views as his own, and was not endorsing the police case. The BSB said that they did not make any finding on that, because they had decided that Goldberg was entitled to express that view anyway.