30 years following the Hillsborough disaster, Graham Mackrell, the then-secretary of Sheffield Wednesday football club, has been fined £6,500 for safety breaches.

On 3 April 2019, Mackrell was found guilty of failing in his official duties as the stadium’s safety officer. The court found that he neglected to ensure there were adequate turnstiles for the thousands of Liverpool fans who flocked to the stadium to watch the club compete against Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup semi-final.

Shockingly, only seven turnstiles were allocated for all 10,100 Liverpool supporters who had tickets to the stand at the Leppings Lane end of the ground.

Severe Congestion

Judge Sir Peter Openshaw, who heard the trial at Preston crown court, said that this caused severe congestion to build up at the turnstiles “certainly from 2:25pm”. Half an hour later, Ch Supt David Duckenfield, the police officer in charge, ordered wide exit gates to be opened to allow fans into the ground. Tragically, a tunnel leading to the terrace’s central “pens” was not closed off, resulting in a fatal crush which killed 96 people and injured hundreds more. The youngest victim of was just 10 years old.

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974

Mackrell was found guilty of breaching the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. Such breaches now carry a possible prison sentence but were at the time punishable only with a fine. The Crown Prosecution Service originally charged Mackrell with two other offences for alleged breaches of the Safety of Sports Grounds Act 1975, which may have seen a custodial sentence imposed; however, both were dropped before the conclusion of the 10-week trial.

“Our 96 deserve better than this”

Many have voiced their disgust over the apparent leniency of the fine, which amounted to just £67.70 per victim, with the sister of one victim branding it “shameful”.

While Openshaw stated that Mackrell “should have realised there was an obvious risk that so many spectators could not pass through seven turnstiles in time for kick-off”, he explained that he had taken a number of factors into account when setting the level of the fine. This included Mackrell’s good character, the view of South Yorkshire police officers at the time that he was a “diligent” safety officer and that Hillsborough was safe, and the fact that Mackrell had been vilified on social media for his fatal oversight. Openshaw also confirmed that Mackrell’s offence did not cause or directly contribute to people’s deaths or injuries.

No apology

Mackrell, who has a 45-year career in football, is the first person to be found guilty of any criminal offence relating to the Hillsborough disaster. In a statement issued in the aftermath of his sentencing, he made no overt apology for his part in the tragedy, instead reiterating Openshaw’s comments that he was not directly to blame for the deaths. He did, however, extend his sympathy for the victims.

The CPS is now seeking a retrial of the charge of manslaughter against Duckenfield for causing the deaths by gross negligence. At his joint trial with Mackrell last month, in which he pleaded not guilty, the jury deliberated for more than 29 hours but was unable to reach a verdict.

Nick Wilson

Director of Health & Safety Services

Expert Comment

Nick Wilson, Director of Health and Safety, shares his thoughts on the recent verdict and what employers can learn from the mistakes made.

The case was brought against Mackrell for his failure to take reasonable care for his actions as required under the HSWA. Whilst not directly causative of the incident itself, this prosecution illustrates how the HSWA can be used to prosecute individuals for their acts and indeed their omissions. What’s also significant is that a custodial sentence could be imposed if an incident of this sort were to take place now.

It is imperative that organisations that hold events have clear arrangements in place to ensure safe crowd management. The tragedy that occurred at Hillsborough is still relevant today and highlights the importance of assessing the capacity of an area, ensuring safe access to and egress from that area, and planning ahead to ensure nothing like this happens again.

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