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Post Office agrees to share privileged legal information with Horizon scandal inquiry

The Post Office will waive professional legal privilege for documents relating to legal advice it received regarding subpostmaster prosecutions

The Post Office has agreed to waive professional privilege for documents required for the public inquiry into the Horizon computer scandal.

The legal advice given to the Post Office during its wrongful prosecutions of subpostmasters for financial crimes will be available to the public inquiry into the scandal.

At a hearing earlier this month, inquiry chair Wyn Williams requested that The Post Office, Horizon supplier Fujitsu, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and UK Government Investments waive legal professional privilege in respect of material relevant to the terms of reference of the inquiry.

The statutory public inquiry was established after subpostmasters had their convictions for theft and false accounting overturned. The convictions came about because the in-branch computer system they use showed losses that they nor the Post Office could explain. More than 700 subpostmasters were criminally convicted, many of whom were sent to prison.

Subpostmasters paid back losses that only existed on the Horizon computer system, many of them having to sell houses to do so. In 2009, Computer Weekly told the stories of seven subpostmasters affected by the problems, which led many more who had suffered losses to come forward (see timeline of Computer weekly articles below).

It has since been proven in court that the Post Office knew of faults in the Horizon system but continued to prosecute. The organisation used its prosecution powers and did not investigate subpostmaster claims that the IT system could be to blame. The sudden increase in prosecutions after Horizon’s introduction in 2000 raised concerns that the Post Office ignored. The organisation told judges, journalists and politicians that Horizon worked as it should and losses were not because of system errors.

Fujitsu, the supplier of Horizon, put forward its own staff to give evidence in court supporting Horizon’s robustness. Two former workers are currently under investigation for potential perjury during subpostmaster trials.

When 39 convictions were overturned in the Court of Appeal in April, the court concluded that the Post Office’s “failures of investigation and disclosure were so egregious as to make the prosecution of any of the ‘Horizon cases’ an affront to the conscience of the court”.

The legal advice given to the Post Office during prosecutions and convictions of subpostmasters is therefore critical to revealing the roots of the scandal. About 60 subpostmasters have had their convictions overturned on appeal, with many more expected.

After the inquiry hearing earlier this month, Williams wrote: “I am today seeking a waiver of privilege in respect of legally privileged material relevant to the terms of reference [of the inquiry].”

He said documents covered would be those dating from the first pilot of the Horizon IT system to the Prime Minister’s announcement to hold an inquiry on 26 February 2020. 

Without agreement of the waiver, there is no legal right for the inquiry to gain access to the documents. All organisations have now agreed to the waiver.

A Post Office spokesperson said: “Following the request by the inquiry chairman, the Post Office has agreed to waive relevant legal privilege for the purpose of the inquiry to over 20 years of documentation, reflecting our desire to assist the inquiry in obtaining the information necessary to complete their investigations.

“While the Inquiries Act does not compel this step, and legal privilege is an important feature of our justice system, this is the right thing to do for all those affected by the Horizon IT scandal. We are participating fully in the inquiry and have implemented fundamental reforms to ensure that such events of the past could never happen again.”

The ability to investigate the legal advice given to the Post Office is a major step forward in the inquiry – and welcome news for campaigners. But the inquiry still has some way to go before it gets full backing from a significant group of victims. The group of more than 555 subpostmaster victims, the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA), is calling for the inquiry to address compensation for subpostmasters before fully backing the inquiry.

The JFSA members took the Post Office to the High Court, proving that Horizon faults were to blame for unexplained losses. This paved the way for criminal convictions to be overturned and the compensation scheme to be established, but those members have been excluded from compensation beyond what they received after the High Court trial. 

They were awarded £57.75m in damages at the conclusion of the case, but were left with about £11m between them after legal expenses were paid. This does not even cover the money they initially paid to the Post Office to plug losses that did not exist. On top of this, many lost businesses, properties and were financially ruined in the process.

During the inquiry hearing earlier this month, Sam Stein, a QC representing 151 former subpostmasters, said despite the judgment in the High Court in 2019 that proved subpostmasters were not to blame for the financial losses, as well as subsequent Court of Appeal decisions to overturn wrongful criminal convictions, victims “are still not in receipt of any adequate financial redress and many still suffer under the stigma of years of reputational loss”.

“The Post Office and the BIES need to recognise that payment of full and proper compensation and the return of legal costs [to High Court claimants] is required now. That means immediately, and not at some point in the future, nor subject to continuing discussion. Don’t discuss it, just do it,” he stressed.

Alan Bates, who set up the JFSA, said the Post Office or government was going to have to pay at some point, so it “should pay now and stop the victims suffering any longer”.

Bates added that the JFSA would not support the inquiry willingly until this is sorted out. The organisation is still waiting to see the final list of issues that the inquiry will cover.

Timeline of the Post Office Horizon case since Computer Weekly first reported on it in 2009

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