Post Office scandal: why thousands of victims are yet to see justice

Dr Karen Nokes (UCL Faculty of Laws) explores what role lawyers have played in the scandal and to explore the subpostmasters’ experience of legal processes and the criminal justice system in The Conversation.

Following the ITV drama  Mr Bates vs the Post Office , which aired on January 1 2024, UK prime minister Rishi Sunak stated he intends to  introduce legislation  to ensure those convicted as a result of the  Post Office scandal  are "swiftly exonerated and compensated".

Meanwhile, a petition calling for former Post Office boss Paula Vennells to  be stripped of the CBE  awarded in 2019 - for services to the Post Office - reached more than a million signatures in the days after the documentary aired.

Vennells has now  handed back  her CBE, saying that she "listened" to calls for her to do so. Many have questioned the decision to award the CBE at all, considering that Vennells had long been confronted with complaints and evidenced challenges to the Horizon system.

In what has been classed as  one of the worst miscarriages of justice  in UK history, the Post Office wrongly accused thousands of  innocent people  of theft, fraud, and false accounting, based on data from the flawed Horizon IT system. Hundreds were convicted, many more lost their businesses, livelihoods, and homes. The harms caused to those victimised, their families and others impacted, are vast and still ongoing.

The big question is why no one yet has been held to account and why victims are yet to be both vindicated and compensated.

Along with Dr Rebecca Helm, we are conducting a three-year  research study , funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, to examine what role lawyers have played in the scandal and to explore the subpostmasters’ experience of legal processes and the criminal justice system.

How has the scandal played out so far?

Problems emerged soon after the Post Office introduced the Horizon IT system to modernise transactions across the business  in 1999 . Horizon flagged accounting "shortfalls", which the Post Office used to take criminal proceedings and civil action against hundreds of people and terminated the contracts of thousands, of others. The "shortfalls" were in fact caused by bugs and errors in the IT system, a position which the Post Office vehemently denied for many years.

In 2012, under pressure from the campaign group  Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance , Conservative politician Lord Arbuthnot and others, the Post Office  retained external investigators Second Sight  to explore complaints of Horizon deficiencies. But Second Sight was sacked in 2015, after it began to unearth problematic findings for the Post Office.

That same year, Vennells defended her company’s handling of the concerns raised by subpostmasters. She  told  the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee, that the Post Office "was a business that genuinely cares about the people who work for us" and that there was no evidence of miscarriages of justice.

555 subpostmasters, led by Alan Bates, brought a civil case against the Post Office which exposed the failings in Horizon, and in 2019 the  High Court  ruled against the Post Office. This contributed to the Court of Appeal quashing the convictions of 39 former subpostmasters in April 2021.

In his judgement for the Court of Appeal, Lord Justice Holroyde  found  the Post Office’s behaviour in undertaking criminal prosecutions had been "an affront to the conscience of the court."

More convictions have been overturned since 2021. The number now stands at 93. But many hundreds remain. Some victims have since passed away, several taking their own lives, without seeing their names cleared. And many subpostmasters are yet to come forward: around  100 more people  have reportedly contacted lawyers since the drama aired.

What responsibility does Paula Vennells bear?

Vennells has apologised but has not accepted responsibility. Indeed in 2020, she sought to shift  the blame to her lawyers.

The ongoing public inquiry, which was established in September 2020 and  gained statutory powers  in June 2021, is likely to now ask what Vennells knew about the faults with the IT system and when. She might also be asked about  the advice  the Post Office received in 2013 from an external lawyer, Simon Clarke. This criticised the reliability of a key witness the Post Office used in its prosecutions, though it did not come to light publicly until the  Court of Appeal case  in November 2020.

The evidence presented in court proceedings and to the inquiry suggests senior people in the Post Office knew of miscarriages of justice well before 2015. While the problems may have started with faulty IT, the failings in this scandal lie with the people who enabled it to happen and subsequently contained and covered it up.

Why has it taken a TV drama for the official response to ramp up?

For years, countless subpostmasters, journalists, MPs and academics have worked tirelessly to raise public awareness. The inquiry is now hearing evidence from Post Office investigators, auditors and lawyers. A further disclosure hearing is set for  January 12 2024 .

News coverage has included the heroic efforts of journalists Karl Flinders and Rebecca Thompson from Computer Weekly, who first broke the story in 2009. Since 2010,  Nick Wallis  has been reporting on the Post Office. His book, The Great Post Office Scandal and the BBC Radio 4 series, The Great Post Office Trial, have been highly instrumental.

In a December 2023 letter to Lord Chancellor Alex Chalk, the  Horizon Compensation Advisory Board  called for all convictions to be overturned. It further highlighted the  trauma  this scandal continues to inflict.

The Post Office’s failures with prompt and proper evidence sharing have been  an ongoing issue. It has fought exposure of the truth with such approaches as non-disclosure agreements, threats of litigation against journalists, selective reporting of investigations and litigation methods that have elicited strong criticism from the judges involved.

In what is set to be a general election year, the impact of the ITV drama has now accelerated the government’s activity. To date, legal and political institutions have failed and been slow to act. But those weaknesses have also been exploited by the Post Office.

Whether this has been due to a state of denial or siege, an organisation plagued by hubris or a lack of integrity, or incompetence and impropriety by the Post Office and its legions of lawyers across 20-plus years, is an issue the inquiry will no doubt turn to.

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