New cases, overturning convictions, compensation and ‘pre-horizon pilot’ problems
Hudgell Solicitors is currently representing and advising more than 500 people concerning the Post Office Horizon IT Scandal, including people wrongfully convicted, those who were forced to repay alleged ‘shortfalls’ and lost their livelihoods, and relatives of sub-postmasters who have since died.
Since the turn of the year, following the broadcast of the ITV Drama ‘Mr Bates v The Post Office’, the case has become a high priority for Government and been the focus of news bulletins across the world.
Here, solicitor Neil Hudgell reflects on the impact of the past few weeks and answers some of the key questions moving forward.
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Neil, how do you reflect upon the past few weeks and how the Post Office Horizon Scandal has become world-wide news?
As a lawyer who has been representing sub-postmasters for the past five years and seeking justice for all affected, all I can say is that the past few weeks have been unprecedented.
Their story has been told superbly to a huge audience and unsurprisingly the public were massively outraged.
It has caused a public outcry which has led the Government to accelerate action and pledge to do the right thing by people as quickly as possible.
It has been a whirlwind few weeks but a very positive time overall as, if the promises made are seen through, thousands of people will get some form of justice, much quicker than was happening before the turn of the year.
Nobody can turn back the clock, nobody can ever be fully compensated for lives being ruined, but at least now there is a collective commitment across the board to help these people as best possible.
How many new victims of the scandal have come forward since the ITV drama and what is your message to them?
New people are coming forward daily and our legal team has handled close to 450 enquiries since the turn of the year. I think this demonstrates how those affected now have confidence that the wider public understand exactly what happened to them.
People know they are not the criminals that they have been labelled as, and that they were victims of a huge miscarriage of justice. Before they feared people would, and indeed did, take a ‘no smoke without fire’ attitude towards their cause.
It has helped lift a feeling of shame that they have unjustly had to carry on their shoulders for years. In other words, they don’t now have to continue to feel that they need to go out every day and explain themselves and their past.
A number of people who have only now come forward have told us that despite being contacted by the Post Office about being able to challenge their convictions, they were still reluctant as they didn’t trust the legal system.
They still worried that they’d face a lengthy legal process to attempt to clear their names which they simply couldn’t face, and that maybe their appeals would still be opposed and rejected, as has happened in some cases.
The Government’s recent pledge to overturn all convictions by sub-postmasters signing a statement of truth as to their innocence has helped bring more people forward, which is obviously a good thing, although much is still to be worked through when details of how that will happen are published.
You mentioned concerns over Historical Shortfall Scheme compensation offers and payments at the recent Parliamentary Select Committee. How big a concern is this?
As every day passes this is looking more like a scandal within a scandal. We are receiving regular calls from former sub-postmasters who we believe may have been substantially undercompensated.
These are people who were not prosecuted but were forced to pay back alleged ‘shortfalls’ in accounts, often running into many thousands of pounds. Many have been through the process of applying for compensation through the scheme on their own without any legal advice.
Whilst they were able to state how much they’d lost through paying the alleged shortfall back to the Post Office, for the majority, it has not occurred to them to formulate other financial losses incurred as a result of the personal impact on their lives.
It has led to significant underpayments and we are making representations to the Post Office that such cases be reopened to ensure people are properly compensated for their loss.
I’d say there are potentially hundreds in this situation.
Are there any issues of particular significance which have come to your attention in recent weeks?
The number of people contacting us on behalf of relatives who were sub-postmasters but have since passed is growing day by day.
These are people who know or believe their loved ones were caught up in this scandal, but never challenged what had happened to them before they died. Many died before the 2019 ruling over the unreliability of Horizon, so went to the grave carrying a feeling of guilt with them. More have died since.
We have also been contacted by people who were not sub-postmasters, but branch managers and employees who were forced to pay back alleged shortfalls and have also never been compensated for their loss.
The issue of people being declared bankrupt continues to be a major concern also, as although they are being offered some compensation through the Historical Shortfall Scheme, it is derisory compared to what they have lost. These cases are often the most complex. Regrettably they have been left to last. Many claims were submitted three years ago and are far from resolution.
Very often the Post Office refuse to accept being responsible for the bankruptcy even though there is clearly a link between leaving the Post Office and insolvency. Most of the compensation goes to the Official Receiver, leaving the claimant with very little until we are able to unravel the true picture.
This situation is leaving many victims standing to receive little, no or very delayed compensation, which is a travesty given the devastating impact the scandal has had on their lives.
As part of the process we have been contacting institutional creditors asking them to absolve postmasters of their historic debts and give them the chance to receive more of the compensation they deserve.
It is a particularly cruel irony for them to be deprived of compensation the Post Office is due to pay given it was the Post Office which, in many cases, caused the financial collapse which preceded these bankruptcies.
Finally, the lack of redress for spouses, children and parents of sub-postmasters continues to be an area which needs addressing.
Spouses miscarried due to the stress, partners committed suicide because of the stress, children suffered from behavioral problems which have impacted into their adult life and families became estranged due to the fallout of all that happened, with some passing away without ever mending those rifts.
There needs to be some form of redress for people affected in this way. Possibly, Fujitsu’s offer of financial support could be earmarked for a ‘family fund’.
Has there been anything ‘new’ to emerge in terms of the calls your legal team has taken in recent weeks?
Yes. Calls are coming in relating to a period between 2000 and possibly as far back as 1990, when there was a pilot system being used ahead of the full Horizon rollout.
We’re hearing a growing number of similar stories of people suffering unexplained losses and being forced to make good the shortfalls by paying the Post Office.
The similarities for what then happened with Horizon are clear to see and this is a picture which is building daily.
What advice are you giving to people coming forward?
We’re obviously in the early stages with each new enquiry we receive, and the first thing we need to do is see where they fit in the overall picture. There are people with convictions and people who were forced to repay thousands of alleged ‘shortfalls’ to the Post Office, and their branches closed down, who have never sought compensation.
There are also people who have been through one of the various compensation schemes but who appear to have not been awarded anywhere near the damages they are entitled to. Our work is all about understanding the impact on each and every individual and making sure we do the very best for them.
The Government has offered a £600,000 compensation package for people who have their convictions overturned, if they don’t want to pursue damages individually. For some that is a reasonable offer, for others it is nowhere near enough, so we still need to do our job for people to understand their stories, the impact on their lives, and gather evidence on their behalf.
There will never be a ‘one size fits all’ solution to this, so the focus, from our perspective, has to be on doing the best for each and every individual affected, and that is what we continue to do.
The overall message to these people is that there is help available for them.
The time for fear and reluctance has gone. There is a huge groundswell of support behind you.
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