By Tony Collins
Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance, whose successful legal action against the Post Office uncovered one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in modern legal history, is to boycott a minister’s “review” of lessons from the scandal.
Alan Bates, founder of the Alliance and lead claimant in the litigation against the Post Office, says that the lessons-learning “review” announced by business minister Paul Scully on Wednesday is “not what we need”.
The Alliance, together with MPs and peers of the main political parties, have called for a judge-led inquiry.
But Scully has rejected a judge-led inquiry suggesting it would cost too much and take too long – although a full-scale judge-led inquiry could cost less than £5m including the legal fees, office and administration overheads.
Campaign4change published a breakdown of the costs of a typical judge-led inquiry in April 2020.
Scully’s planned review has been described as “pathetic” and “pointless” in a Computer Weekly article.
MPs at a debate on the Horizon scandal in the House of Commons on Wednesday made it clear they will accept only judge-led inquiry, not a review. Newcastle MP Chi Onwurah said a judge-led inquiry is the “very least the victims deserve”.
More than 1,000 sub-postmasters were victims of the Horizon IT scandal. Lives, livelihoods, homes, life savings, marriages and good health were lost because the Post Office held sub-postmasters liable for every amount shown on Horizon as missing even when the system was to blame. The Post Office prosecuted more than 900 sub-postmasters using potentially untrustworthy Horizon data. An unknown number of sub-postmasters have lived for large periods of their adult lives with unwarranted criminal convictions.
Scully’s review would not be able to require the disclosure of top-of-government emails and letters about the scandal or confidential reports and files that are usually made available to judge-led inquiries. Neither would a review feature the cross examination of ministers, civil servants or the Post Office’s current and former officials. It would also not be able to take evidence on oath.
Ministers say the Post Office will cooperate fully with the review. But the High Court’s Sir Peter Fraser QC, in his judgements last year after two Horizon-related trials, found that the Post Office had not always told the truth to the court, either verbally or in written evidence. The High Court trials uncovered extensive cover-ups that extended well into 2019.
Sub-postmasters may wonder why the Post Office would be open and transparent in an entirely voluntary review when it sought to have relevant evidence struck out and provided misleading information in statutory court hearings. The Post Office hired four QCs and two firms of solicitors against sub-postmasters during the High Court trials.
But Scully suggests that the Post Office has changed. He told MPs on Wednesday,
“The key point is that the Post Office has said that it will disclose everything, and I will ensure that it does, to the best of my ability.”
However, Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance said,
“We need to know who in Government took such disastrous decisions, and who failed to undertake their duties that led to us having to pursue Post Office through the courts costing each of us £86,000.
“Who lied? Who knew what? That’s what we want to know …”
The JFSA says it will not engage with the review and will refuse any invitations to attend or submit documentation to this review. “We will only assist a judge-led public inquiry, and would do so gladly.”
Forensic accountants Second Sight, which carried out an independent review of the Horizon system at the Post Office’s request but had its contract terminated after it found faults with the system, may also take part only in a judge-led inquiry.
The Alliance says will write to Scully to explain its position.
It has set up a crowd-funding appeal to raise money for a formal complaint against the civil service and ministers of maladministration. If enough money is raised for a QC to lodge the complaint, and the Parliamentary Ombudsman finds in the Alliance’s favour, the Ombudsman can recommend that adequate compensation is paid to former sub-postmasters for their losses.
The website for donations is here.