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Post Office scandal inquiry restarts with call for a pause amid disclosure controversy

The statutory public inquiry into the Post Office Horizon scandal has begun phase two with a request for an adjournment amid allegations that the Post Office is failing to meet its obligation to disclose all relevant documents

The Post Office Horizon scandal inquiry has begun its second phase with an application from the legal representatives of victims for an adjournment, amid accusations that the Post Office is not meeting its obligations to provide thousands of documents requested.

The request for a delay was turned down by the inquiry chairman, former judge Wyn Williams, who made it clear that he will use all the powers at his disposal to make sure everything that is required to be disclosed is disclosed.

At the outset of phase two, the legal teams representing subpostmasters made submissions accusing the Post Office of not meeting its obligations to disclose documents requested by subpostmasters’ legal representatives.

Representing subpostmasters, Sam Stein KC said the Post Office was “playing the same games” as in the past. He said the scandal victims he represented were willing to have a short delay, if it meant proper disclosure of evidence by the Post Office.

“They want it done properly, with the inquiry in charge of disclosure, not the Post Office,” said Stein. To demonstrate the willingness of scandal victims to accept a short pause to guarantee that disclosure is completed properly, he read out statements from his subpostmaster clients.

Edward Henry KC, also representing subpostmasters, described the Post Office as a sinister and malevolent animal that must be trained. “It cannot be trusted to comply with the court,” he said.

In response, Kate Gallafent KC, representing the Post Office, said: “The allegation made in the application is that the Post Office is continuing in what is alleged to be a pattern of late and partial disclosure of documents as well as obfuscating attempts by others to obtain them. We emphatically deny this.”

Gallafent then put into context the sheer scale of the Post Office’s challenges in disclosing a huge quantity of information build up over 20 years.

The Post Office Horizon scandal saw thousands of subpostmasters blamed for accounting shortfalls that were later proved to have been caused by computer errors – but not before lives had been ruined. Between 2000 and 2015, about 900 subpostmasters were prosecuted for financial crimes such as theft and false accounting, based on data from the Horizon system. Thousands more were ruined financially and had their lives turned upside down. Back in 2009, Computer Weekly told the stories of seven subpostmasters affected by the problems (see timeline of Computer Weekly articles below).

The Post Office’s failure to disclose relevant evidence and denying the existence of information has been central throughout the scandal.

For example, the Post Office always denied that there were errors in the Horizon system that could cause unexplained shortfalls. But in January 2019, the disclosure of the Horizon Known Errors Log, held by Horizon system supplier Fujitsu, revealed thousands of bugs, including hundreds potentially capable of leading to losses.

It was disclosed during the Bates and others High Court group litigation order (GLO), in which the Post Office was sued by 555 subpostmasters, who blamed computer problems for unexplained financial losses.

The log of known errors in the system was never made available to subpostmasters, and the Post Office consistently denied there were problems with the IT system.

Also, during Court of Appeal hearings in 2021, when 39 subpostmasters successfully had wrongful criminal conviction overturned, a letter from a lawyer working for the Post Office was disclosed, proving that the Post Office was warned in 2013 that one of its expert witnesses, Gareth Jenkins, had misled courts in trials of subpostmasters prosecuted for financial crimes. This was never disclosed during the High Court Bates and others versus the Post Office GLO.

Inquiry chairman Wyn Williams considered the request for a delay in proceedings, but turned it down. He said he would use all the powers at his disposal to ensure that disclosure is completed properly. He said the request for an adjournment was not a surprise because his team had been reviewing this issue, but described why it was in the best interest to continue with the current schedule.

"Let me assure them I do intend to control disclosure," he said. "No one should be under any illusions, the obligation to disclose relevant documents is ongoing g and will persist throughout this inquiry until the very day when I hand over my report to the Minister. I wish to make it clear that if I reach a conclusion at any time that there is either accidental, or even worse, deliberate non-disclosure of relevant documents, I will use all the extensive powers available to me."

The Post Office Horizon IT inquiry is in seven phases. The first phase, now completed, investigated the human impact of the scandal on the thousands of subpostmasters affected.

Phase two focuses on  the Horizon IT system, its procurement, design, pilot, roll-out and modifications.

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

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