By Tony Collins
It is being described as the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history: the potentially unsafe convictions of more than 500 businessmen and women whose prosecutions were based on the output of a Post Office computer system, Horizon.
In December last year, the High Court confirmed what sub-postmasters had been saying for years: that the Horizon system’s flaws could explain mysterious shortfalls being shown on the system – shortfalls for which hundreds of sub-postmasters have been blamed for at least 15 years.
Even before news broke last month of potentially 500 unsafe convictions, Boris Johnson had promised MPs to “get to the bottom” of what he called a scandal.
He was aware that bankruptcies, imprisonment and suicide had resulted from the Post Office’s actions against sub-postmasters who had complained about the Horizon computer system.
Yesterday, Campaign4Change looked at why civil servants and their ministers prefer a “review” to an inquiry. This piece compares the likely costs of a judge-led inquiry against a review and looks whether a cheaper review could undermine Boris Johnson’s promise to get to the bottom of the Horizon scandal.
Alan Bates, founder of Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance, which led a successful group litigation against the Post Office, says he would not engage with anything but a judge-led inquiry.
“Despite our years of campaigning, it has become clear that the only way to expose the lies and cover-up by the Post Office has been through the courts, which is why, going forward, the judiciary must be involved.
“Any other type of inquiry would have no merit or value and would not be anything that the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance would want to engage with.”
But Downing Street officials appear to have left the final decision on an inquiry or a review to the business department BEIS, which provides public funds to the Post Office and would be in the firing line of any inquiry: a judge-led inquiry may ask why, for nearly a decade, BEIS rejected the concerns of peers and MPs about Horizon and instead accepted the Post Office’s assurances that Horizon was robust. This raises two awkward questions for BEIS,
– Why did BEIS not commission its own independent analysis of Horizon’s robustness given the seriousness of the concerns of MPs, in particular former Conservative defence minister James (now Lord) Arbuthnot, in 2010?
– why did it take a former sub-postmaster, Alan Bates, to raise tens of millions of pounds for a legal action to bring Horizon’s bugs and systemic weaknesses into the open?
In deciding what happens next – a review or much tougher judge-led inquiry – BEIS may be said to have a conflict of interest. So far BEIS has rejected a judge-led inquiry (in which BEIS civil servants may be cross-examined by lawyers for sub-postmasters).
Whitehall may cite costs as a reason or not holding a judge-led inquiry. But the counter argument is that the costs are small compared to the £100m that the Post Office is estimated to have spent on years of fighting the well-grounded assertions of sub-postmasters that Horizon was flawed.
The typical costs of a four-week judge-led inquiry would be about £3.5m to £4.5m to cover external lawyers’ fees, research and expenses, the legal and other costs incurred by BEIS, UK Government Investments and any other government departments involved in the inquiry.
The figure includes about £180,000 for staffing the inquiry and a predicted £350,000 in fees such as audio/video links in inquiry courtrooms at the Royal Courts of Justice.
A review with a “safe” remit such as the lessons learned from the Post Office’ past dealings with sub-postmasters, need cost only about £200,000-£300,000 (or less) but all of this may be wasted if a review perpetuates the Horizon scandal by looking at it from a restricted historical viewpoint instead of challenging the Post Office’s conduct and actions from 1999 to the present day.
Some questions a review would avoid?
Below are some of the questions that lawyers for sub-postmasters may ask at a judge-inquiry but which a review panel is unlikely to go anywhere near …
Has the Post Office, after all that has passed in two years of High Court litigation it lost, gone back to regarding Horizon as robust and treating sub-postmasters who challenge its reliability as likely criminals?
Is the Post Office today, with the tacit consent of BEIS, trivialising the ongoing dire consequences of the Horizon scandal for 550-plus people and their families by suggesting it all happened in a done-with past era ?
What does the Post Office say to victims of the scandal who may never recover their full losses?
Does the Post Office still employ most of the people whom a High Court judge criticised?
If the Post Office was unable to accept criticism from a High Court judge and sought to have him removed, why would it be any more willing to accept the findings of a non-statutory review?
Why is the Post Office in control of choosing solicitors to assess 500 potentially unsafe convictions? Is it also in control of what evidence it provides to the solicitors? A High Court judge last year found that Post Office wanted things its own way in terms of what evidence was heard and not heard.
How was the Post Office board able to spend an estimated £100m on fighting sub-postmasters when it was obvious to everyone except the Post Office and BEIS that the sub-postmasters were victims of a scandal?
More questions a review would avoid?
Why are the Post Office’s apologies limited to past shortcomings only? It has not apologised for presenting misleading evidence to the High Court.
Why did Post Office staff who saw at first hand that a branch Horizon system was producing inexplicable shortfalls, still allow the sub-postmistress to be chased for debts?
Was the Post Office’s attitude towards sub-postmasters typified by its questioning during the trial of a widow who took over the running of her husband’s post office the day after he died? The Post Office put it to her during the trial that she probably had a vague recollection of that month, August 1999, and that the signing of documents and taking over the Post Office were “everyday events”; they were not like a car crash? She replied that the events of that day were “very similar to a car crash.” The judge agreed. He described the events of that month as “seismic” . He said it was “unsurprising” that the sub-postmistress rejected the suggestion put to her by the Post Office that the signing of documents and formally taking over as the sub-postmistress the day after her husband had died were ‘everyday events’.
On what basis did the Post Office’s board decide to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds trying to remove the judge in High Court litigation the Post Office was losing?
Are ministers and the Post Office being disingenuous in saying the mediation settlement figure was agreed by both sides when the sub-postmasters had little or no choice but to settle because of the way they were funded? The Post Office did not have the same risks to its funding: it is a national institution with a turnover of nearly £1bn.
How did the Post Office arrive at a decision to drop criminal charges against sub-postmistress Fiona Cowan without telling her? She took a fatal drugs overdose without knowing the charges had been dropped. She was 47.
Who took the decisions at the Post Office that led to Martin Griffiths, a successful businessman, borrowing his parents’ life savings to pay the Post Office £53,000? These were the amounts shown on the Post Office’s Horizon system as shortfalls – but Horizon’s systemic faults and sometimes untrustworthy figures were being hidden. He ended up stepping in front of a bus. An inquest heard that the Post Office was pursuing him for money.
Met Police assessing evidence of potential perjury in Post Office IT trials – Karl Flinders, Computer Weekly