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Post Office IT investigator to be released from confidentiality obligations for inquiry

Forensic accounting firm that ‘knows where the bodies are buried’ will be released from confidentiality obligations by the Post Office to give evidence to public inquiry

The forensic accounting company that carried out detailed examination of the IT system at the centre of the Post Office scandal will be released from its confidentiality obligations for the purposes of the public inquiry.

While Post Office consent will still be needed for the release of material that may be subject to legal professional privilege, Second Sight has encyclopaedic knowledge of the Post Office and Fujitsu behaviour that caused the scandal.

Second Sight was hired by the Post Office to investigate the Horizon computer system and connected processes in 2012, amid allegations that system errors were causing unexplained accounting shortfalls for which subpostmasters were being held responsible.

Computer Weekly first reported on problems with the system in 2009, when it made public the stories of a group of subpostmasters who were being blamed for unexplained losses. Many hundreds, potentially thousands, of subpostmasters have had their lives and businesses ruined as a result. More than 700 were prosecuted for financial crimes as a result of shortfalls, with many serving prison sentences.

After producing two reports revealing problems with the Horizon system, which the Post Office denied, Second Sight’s contract with the Post Office was terminated.

Its major report in 2015 revealed, among other things, that the Post Office had failed to investigate account shortfalls before legal action. The Post Office terminated Second Sight’s contract and said the forensic accounting firm had completed its work, but many believe it was terminated because it was getting close to the truth.

One source told Computer Weekly: “There were stones that Second Sight wanted to look below, but was never able to.”

In 2019, a High Court litigation found that the Horizon system was not robust and did cause unexplained errors – and, for the first time, the Post Office admitted to the problems. A total of 75 former subpostmasters have since had wrongful convictions overturned, with more expected, and the Post Office and government has set aside £1bn of taxpayers’ money to compensate subpostmasters that have suffered due to Horizon errors.

Ron Warmington, head of forensic investigation firm Second Sight, said: “We are delighted that we will be far less constrained in our ability to assist the inquiry.”

Confidentiality has so far meant Second Sight has not been able to reveal what it found in full.

“We are delighted that we will be far less constrained in our ability to assist the inquiry”
Ron Warmington, Second Sight

Barrister Paul Marshall, who represented the subpostmasters who successfully overturned wrongful convictions by the Post Office, said there may be some questions about whether material is subject to professional legal privilege, therefore requiring Post Office consent before Second Sight reveals details.

“There is nothing, in principle, wrong with that, but it raises some interesting questions, because...the Post Office misunderstood the law of privilege, which itself had important long-term consequences,” he told Computer weekly.

Public inquiry chair Wyn Williams also announced that the Post Office would not enforce any non-disclosure agreement (NDA) it has with current or former employees, subpostmasters, branch managers or assistants, or directors in relation to the inquiry. 

Williams said: “I have been made aware of potential concerns regarding the ability for certain persons to engage with the inquiry in light of obligations those persons may have under non-disclosure agreements with the Post Office.

“I hope that this announcement alleviates the above concerns, and that any and all persons with relevant information who may have been previously deterred from engaging or participating with the inquiry may now feel free to do so.” 

The public inquiry, originally set up in September 2020 on a non-statutory basis, was made statutory in June 2021 after mounting pressure from subpostmaster victims, politicians, journalists and an increasingly incensed public. This gave its chair the power to call witnesses under oath and compel provision of evidence.

Inquiry chair Williams is asking for people involved in training, assisting, auditing or investigating subpostmasters, including people assisting from the on behalf of Fujutsu, to respond to his call for evidence by 30 June

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

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