This is the final in a three-part series examining how the law allowed the Post office scandal to happen and the role now being played by the law and those who work within it in redressing what has been described as the largest miscarriage of justice in legal history. This part takes stock of where we are and considers what may happen in the future
Read part one here and part two here.
Overturning of remaining convictions
To date, only around 83 of the 918 sub-postmaster (SPM) convictions have been overturned. To overturn the remainder could take years. The issue is quite simply a lack of funding and resources. The government has announced a new law to provide for the blanket exoneration of the remaining SPMs. Many welcome this not only as the quickest way to quash the convictions but also to pave the way for compensation. However, concern has been expressed that this will prevent each case from being examined individually and has the potential to cover up the failings in the criminal justice system. Some feel that a greater degree of funding and resources to the appeal court may be more appropriate.
Many SPMs have still not been adequately compensated. As of 15th September 2023, £122m has been paid to 2,600 claimants from the mediation scheme as a result of the group litigation order and from the overturned convictions scheme. It is not enough. The government has confirmed it will act to ensure the SPMs receive the compensation they deserve, though the detail of how this is to be achieved is awaited.
Holding the Post Office and Fujitsu Accountable
No criminal charges have yet been brought against any of the Post Office or Fujitsu witnesses. The Court of Appeal declined to decide whether any witness from the Post Office or Fujitsu deliberately lied in their evidence. In January 2024 the Metropolitan Police confirmed it launched an investigation in January 2020. To date two people have been interviewed under caution, both understood to be employees of Fujitsu.
What about the Post Office lawyers? The Solicitors Regulation Authority, the body responsible for investigating allegations of misconduct against solicitors, has indicated it will wait for the outcome of the public inquiry before taking any action.
The Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry, an independent public Inquiry led by retired high court judge Sir Wyn Williams, is tasked with establishing a clear account of the implementation and failings of the Horizon system. It has been running since 2020. It is in the process of gathering evidence from the Post Office, particularly its investigators and lawyers, Fujitsu, the SPMs and many others. It will also consider whether the Post Office has learned its lessons and made changes since the outcome of the civil and criminal proceedings. To date it has heard evidence from around 200 witnesses. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the disclosure issues faced by the SPMs, Second Sight (the investigative firm commissioned by the Post Office to establish an independent inquiry in 2012), the High Court and the Court of Appeal, the Horizon Inquiry has also experienced difficulties with disclosure from the Post Office and Fujitsu. On 5th September 2023 Sir Wyn Williams found that the Post Office had failed to disclose relevant documents to the I
inquiry. The testimony included key witnesses Gareth Jenkins, a Fujitsu engineer whose statements were relied upon to demonstrate the robustness of Horizon in the criminal prosecutions, and Post Office investigator Steve Bradshaw. The Inquiry is currently up to phase four of seven, with oral evidence expected to conclude later this year, although there is no timescale for the publication of the report.
The immediate priority has to be to ensure that all SPMs who have suffered as a result of the actions of the Post Office and Fujitsu are adequately compensated for what they have lost, and that every person who has been wrongfully criminally convicted is exonerated.
Criminal cases where the same body or individual is victim, investigator and prosecutor carry with them inherent risks of injustice and many have long held reservations about private prosecutions. This is not to say private prosecutions are without value – they may provide the only means of redress for some victims – but an overhaul of the system is needed. A new inspection regime for private prosecutors, a binding code of standards and the creation of a new power to strip an organisation of its power to conduct them were suggested by the justice committee back in 2020 but the proposals were rejected. This issue needs to be revisited, and urgently.
Phase six of the Inquiry is due to examine issue of governance, including monitoring of Horizon, contractual arrangements, internal and external audit, technical competence, stakeholder engagement, oversight and whistleblowing. All organisations, but particularly those with links to the State, should reflect on the findings and ensure both that their own processes operate with checks and balances and that those responsible for overseeing them are accountable.
Finally the Horizon failings must never be forgotten, particularly by those who work in the law. In the words of Alexander Hamilton, the first duty of society is justice. Let’s hope the Post Office victims do not have too much longer to wait.
If you have been affected by the Post Office and Horizon scandal, please contact Sian Darlington here.
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