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The Post Office scandal - can a Public Inquiry prompt positive change?

Last week, the Inquiry into the Post Office Horizon IT system finally started hearing evidence relating to what has been described as “the worst miscarriage of justice in recent British legal history”.

In this article, we examine the legal history of what is described in the media as the Post Office scandal and consider the important role of Public Inquiries in enabling those most deeply affected by organisational failings to voice their experiences, with the aim of ensuring that all lessons are learned so that such events can never happen again.

Background

Between 2000 and 2014, more than 700 sub-postmasters were wrongly accused of theft, fraud and false accounting due to a flaw in a Fujitsu developed computer system Horizon. Bugs in the software meant that it falsely reported shortfalls running into thousands of pounds.

The impact on the individuals involved cannot be underestimated. Facing investigation, and ordered to repay the shortfalls by the Post Office, some sub-postmasters tried to compensate for the system’s mistakes using their own money, even mortgaging their homes to do so. In addition to the significant financial impact, in many cases the false allegations of dishonesty destroyed the reputations of those accused, and made finding new work difficult. One wrongly accused postmaster, Martin Griffiths, took his own life in 2013.

Over the years a number of criminal prosecutions were brought against sub-postmasters by the Post Office acting as a private prosecutor. Many were convicted, and some even received prison sentences. In December 2019 the Post Office settled a civil claim brought by more than 550 claimants for £57.75m, without admitting liability. The High Court found that the Horizon accounting system contained “bugs, errors and defects” and that there was a “material risk” shortfalls in branch accounts were caused by the system.

As a result of the High Court’s findings, the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) considered there was “a real possibility” that a number of the sub-postmasters’ convictions were unsafe, and the appeals of 42 individuals began at the Court of Appeal. In April 2021, the Court of Appeal allowed 39 of these appeals, and the respective convictions were quashed. A total of 72 former sub-postmasters have now had their names cleared, with other appeals pending.

The Inquiry

In the face of mounting public pressure, on 26 February 2020 Prime Minister Boris Johnson committed to hold an independent Inquiry into the Post Office scandal. This Inquiry was initially established in non-statutory form on 29 September 2020. The Justice For Sub-postmasters Alliance (JFSA) campaign group, which was instrumental in helping former sub-postmasters win compensation, had refused to take part in a non-statutory Inquiry, describing it as a whitewash and calling for a full Public Inquiry instead. Following the Court of Appeal’s judgment in April 2021, the Inquiry was granted statutory status on 1 June 2021.

The Inquiry is led by retired High Court Judge Sir Wyn Williams, who has over 28 years’ judicial experience. The Counsel to the Inquiry team is headed up by Jason Beer QC, Head of Chambers of 5 Essex Court, who sits as a Deputy High Court Judge (Queen’s Bench and Chancery Divisions) and as a Recorder of the Crown Court.

The Inquiry is expected to run for the rest of this year, and Sir Wyn has been clear on the importance of sticking to the timetable. He said: “I regard the goal of delivering a report to the Minister by the end of 2022 as one which must be achieved, if at all possible.

The information received by the Inquiry to date establishes that a wrongful conviction was first recorded against a sub-postmasters in England and Wales in November 2001. There is every reason to suppose that significant queries must have been raised about Horizon by employees of Fujitsu, Post Office Ltd and sub-postmasters before that time. That being so, it is imperative that a report to the Minister is delivered as soon as is reasonably practicable.”

The purpose

Jason Beer QC said the hearings would examine the human cost of the scandal, including on postmasters who were prosecuted, and not be “a dry, technical investigation into an IT project gone wrong”.

He said: “Their prosecutions were founded upon an assertion that the computerised accounting system Horizon which was used in branch post offices was reliable when in fact it was not, and what’s more, the publicly owned company responsible for bringing the prosecutions — Post Office Ltd — knew that it was not.”.

Sir Wyn is tasked with ensuring there is a public summary of the failings which occurred with the Horizon IT system at the Post Office leading to the suspension and termination of sub-postmasters’ contracts, and the prosecution and conviction of sub-postmasters. The Inquiry will look to establish a clear account of the implementation and failings of the system over its lifetime (a period of more than 20 years).

The Inquiry will gather relevant evidence from affected persons, previous and current sub-postmasters, Post Office Ltd, UK Government Investment (UKGI), Fujitsu, and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), amongst others. It will also consider whether the Post Office has learned the lessons and embedded the cultural change necessary as a result of the findings in the 2019 High Court judgments, and the impact on affected postmasters. It will also examine whether staff at software firm Fujitsu knew the system had flaws while data from it was used in court to convict sub-postmasters.

The cost

So far, neither the Post Office nor Fujitsu has admitted liability for the scandal. The two organisations have blamed each other for failings in the Horizon computer software.

The state-owned Post Office will compensate those whose criminal convictions were overturned, as well as 2,500 sub-postmasters who were not prosecuted but had to repay money to the Post Office when deficits were incorrectly recorded in their branch accounts. When the Post Office said last December that it could not afford the multimillion-pound cost, the government confirmed it would step in with taxpayer money; according to The Telegraph, the Post Office scandal could end up costing the taxpayer more than £350m in compensation payments.

Conclusions

According to the Ministry of Justice the Government considers “preventing recurrence” to be the primary purpose of Public Inquiries, and this is achieved by addressing three key questions:

  • What happened?
  • Why did it happen and who is to blame?
  • What can be done to prevent this happening again?

Despite the numerous court cases that have already taken place in respect of the Post Office scandal, it is clear there remains a strong public desire for a public and independent examination of these questions.

We will continue to monitor the Inquiry, to see whether it can prompt positive change following “the worst miscarriage of justice in recent British legal history”.

Disclaimer

This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. © Shoosmiths LLP 2022.

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