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June 11th 2020

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Public Inquiry remains key despite new Independent Review into Post Office Horizon IT System scandal being confirmed

Dr Neil Hudgell

Dr Neil Hudgell

Executive Chairman

Public Inquiry remains key despite new Independent Review into Post Office Horizon IT System scandal being confirmed

Given our work supporting a growing number of former subpostmasters in challenging convictions related to the failings of the Post Office’s faulty Horizon IT accounting system, we of course welcome any further scrutiny around this scandal.

Given our work supporting a growing number of former subpostmasters in challenging convictions related to the failings of the Post Office’s faulty Horizon IT accounting system, we of course welcome any further scrutiny around this scandal.

The latest development has seen confirmation from the Government that an Independent Review is now to be held, led by a yet to be appointed chair.

Questions are already being asked as to what purpose this new review will serve.

Will it bring the levels of scrutiny required over what has been described as one of the biggest ever miscarriages of justice this country has ever seen?

Small Business and Postal Affairs Minister Paul Scully said it would consider whether the Post Office had ‘learned lessons’ and ‘made changes to ensure similar doesn’t happen in the future’.

His statement also talks of examining how the Post Office is working to ‘rebuild relationships with subpostmasters’.

To me that suggests there is a danger here that the Government is already looking to a new future before it has even committed to getting answers as to what has happened in the past, and more importantly, finding out exactly how and why it was allowed to happen.

It says it will not stray into areas covered off by the group action or subject to Court of Appeal proceedings. What exactly does that mean?

At Hudgell Solicitors we are representing people who are still being denied answers and justice. The priority must be doing the best by them.

Wrongful convictions need to be overturned to clear the names of innocent people, and those in senior positions at the Post Office need to be fully questioned as to how much they knew.

In a written ministerial statement laid in the House of Commons, which sets out the draft terms of reference for the independent review, Mr Scully says: “These events have deeply affected postmasters’ lives: their livelihoods, their financial situation, their reputations and, for some, also their physical and mental health.”

He also highlights how, at the conclusion of a High Court Case last December, which found that ‘bugs, errors and defects’ in the Horizon system made it unreliable, Mr Justice Fraser identified significant failings within Post Office Ltd over nearly two decades, particularly in relation to the treatment of postmasters and in its management culture.

The BBC Panorama programme on Monday shouted out “cover up” and said this is a matter which needs the full glare of public scrutiny all over it.

It is therefore of significant concern that the draft terms set out for this investigation appear to largely ignore all of that and simply look at how the Post Office is working now.

I know from the people that I am representing that this is not what they believe time and public money should be spent on. They want to identify who was responsible for what happened to them and for them to be held to account. That has simply not happened so far.

Serious questions still to be answered by Post Office officials

My clients also want questions answered, such as where did all the money wrongfully recovered from so many subpostmasters for alleged ‘shortfalls’ in accounts go?

What has to be at the heart of all investigations is the appalling treatment of so many subpostmasters.

We are currently representing a large number in challenging a range of convictions related to discrepancies in their Post Office accounts which they were never able to understand or explain, but which eventually led to them being convicted of offences or being coerced into making a guilty plea.

People were made to believe their situation was unique, but as Mr Scully says, they were ‘common issues’ experienced by many who the Post Office pushed to the brink.

Many cases have already been referred to the Court of Appeal by the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), and we are currently working alongside the long-campaigning Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance (JSFA) to raise funds and ensure they benefit from the best legal representation in that process.

We note that in his written statement, Mr Scully says it is important that the review be launched as soon as possible, and that it should not encroach on the work of the CCRC and the Court of Appeal.

However, we certainly believe the evidence of those directly affected should be a major part of this investigation if it is to serve a meaningful purpose, and would certainly support our clients in being involved in this process in any way possible.

We also believe witnesses should be open to full scrutiny, with a process for them to be questioned by lawyers representing those affected.

Justice can only be served by ensuring this matter runs its full and proper course.

It must end in a judge-led Public Inquiry, where all those who played any part in this large scale injustice can be fully questioned under the rules of evidence and held to account for the appalling suffering caused to so many.

If this Independent Review is to play a truly useful role, it must be converted to a Public Inquiry, and not simply be a meaningless process where the Post Office can give its defence of what happened unchallenged.

To find out more, visit the Post Office Compensation pages here.

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