By Tony Collins
Post Office lawyers are to be investigated over claims that sub-postmasters were bullied into admitting crimes they didn’t commit, said the Sunday Mirror yesterday.
The Sunday Times also has a story yesterday under the headline “Post Office lawyers in Horizon scandal to be investigated”. It said the Solicitors Regulation Authority is investigating the part played by Post Office lawyers in Horizon-related convictions that have been overturned.
About 700 post office workers were wrongly prosecuted and some were jailed for theft, false accounting or fraud on the basis of “losses” shown on the Post Office’s Horizon system. In reality, the Post Office’s Horizon accounting system caused numerous unexplained shortfalls for which sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses were blamed. The Post Office and Horizon’s supplier Fujitsu hid the system’s faults from the criminal courts and civil court judges.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority [SRA] has applied to the High Court for an order under 44B of the Solicitors Act 1974, which can be used to require the provision of documents where the SRA is satisfied it is necessary to do so for the purpose of investigating whether there has been professional misconduct by a solicitor or whether there has been a failure to comply with any legal or regulatory obligations.
The SRA will normally only exercise this power as part of an investigation and where the solicitor has declined to offer up the requested documents voluntarily. But the Post Office said the wording of the disclosure notice has been agreed with the SRA. It told the Law Society Gazette that it is “fully complying with the notice and will be providing relevant documents within the timeframe requested”. The Post Office said, “The disclosure notice does not relate to individuals that are involved with the Post Office today.”
It’s unclear whether the Solicitors Regulation Authority is committed to a full investigation of the possible misconduct of particular lawyers or whether it merely gathering documents. The Authority told the Sunday Mirror,
“We are gathering all relevant information before deciding any next steps.”
The SRA has been reluctant in the past to investigate lawyers involved in the Post Office Horizon scandal. Barrister Jacob Meagher is among critics of the SRA’s lack of action. There are, however, a growing number of detailed complaints about lawyers involved in the scandal, which may make it difficult for the SRA to refuse a full investigation.
Among those who have written to the SRA is Aria Grace Law which represented Tracy Felstead, Janet Skinner and Seema Misra in their successful appeals against Horizon-related convictions. Aria Grace Law’s letter to the SRA’s Chief Executive Officer in May 2021 said,
“There is no doubt from the judgment of the Court of Appeal dated 23rd April 2021 that from 2013, the Post Office pursued a policy of denial that it knew of any substantial weakness or defect in the Horizon IT system. That was false. That strategy can only have been devised by the Post Office by and with reference to legal advice and by the Post Office board upon such advice. Doing so has been found by the Court of Appeal to have subverted the criminal justice system and to have undermined public confidence in it. My clients would like a personal assurance from you that the organisation of which you are CEO will be fully and effectively investigating this matter without any delay. On their behalf, I look forward to that confirmation.”
Sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses told the Horizon public inquiry last week that they were offered deals by Post Office prosecutors: if the accused agreed to plead guilty to false accounting and not mention Horizon, the Post Office would drop the more serious theft charge.
Among those who accepted the plea bargain was Jo Hamilton who was planning to plead not guilty to theft. Hamilton told the inquiry: “… The Post Office offered a plea bargain, ‘If you plead guilty to 14 counts of false accounting, don’t mention Horizon on sentencing and repay all the money [£36,000], we’ll drop the theft’.”
Hamilton agreed and was spared prison but given a supervision order and had a criminal record from 2008 until her conviction was quashed last year. She told the inquiry,
“It just is a horrible thing to be accused of dishonesty when you’re not dishonest.”
She had to re-mortgage and have a collection in the local community to “repay” £36,000 demanded by the Post Office because of Horizon-based shortfalls in her accounts. Her parents had strokes within three months of each other.
Former sub-postmaster Noel Thomas accepted a Post Office plea bargain in which he agreed not to mention Horizon but he still went to prison. He had worked for the Post Office for 42 years. He told the Horizon inquiry that about 10 minutes before he went into court charged with theft his barrister approached him and said, ‘They’re offering you a bargain …They’re going to drop the theft as long as you take the charge of false accounting and also that you don’t mention Horizon’. And I said, “Well, what does that mean? Will it keep me out of jail?” and he said, ‘Well, hopefully’. I did sign a piece of paper with my barrister to say that I wouldn’t mention Horizon …” But still Thomas received a nine-month prison sentence. His conviction was quashed last year.
In 2021, the Court of Appeal criticised the actions of some Post Office prosecutors and found that many of the accused were denied a fair trial. Even though the Post Office suspected the IT system was faulty, it continued to hound sub-postmasters through the courts.
In Hamilton’s case she discovered from a report by forensic accountants Second Sight that Post Office investigators had known that there was no evidence she had stolen anything or deliberately-inflated cash figures. Despite knowing this, the Post Office charged her with theft – until they dropped the charge as part of a plea bargain.
When Hamilton discovered the existence of the document containing the investigator’s comments, she asked the Post Office for a copy of his report, without success. Hamilton told the inquiry that when the report was not forthcoming, she emailed the Post Office saying she would get a copy of it from Second Sight. Hamilton told the inquiry
“… then they [the Post Office] wrote back to me and said, ‘You will never have that document. It’s a legally privileged document’ and they don’t know why Second Sight quoted it in their report.”
But Hamilton eventually saw the document at the Court of Appeal hearings last year. At the Horizon inquiry last week she was asked whether it said exactly what Second Sight had reported it as saying.
“Yes, exactly,” said Hamilton. “There was that paragraph ‘having examined all the Horizon records, I can find no evidence of theft or deliberate cash inflated figures’. But it was that piece that just made me so angry … why did they do that?”
The SRA has powers to give a written rebuke, impose a fine, publish details of the case, or disqualify the lawyer in question from acting as a head of legal practice or head of finance and administration or being a manager or employee. It can also refer a case to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal which can strike off or suspend a lawyer for a specified period or indefinitely. The Tribunal can also impose unlimited fines.
Any further reluctance of the SRA to act decisively in the widest miscarriage of justice in British legal history may raise questions about whether it is unwilling to act against a major public corporation and its representatives. The Post Office is 100%-owned by government.
33 former staff died before getting justice in Post Office IT scandal – Daily Mail’s front page – 14 Feb 2022
The Great Post Office Scandal – by Nick Wallis
43 years of state IT disasters – and they’re still happening Part 2
43 years of IT disasters – and they’re still happening – Part 3