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Post Office lawyer with his fingerprints all over IT scandal spreads blame

Senior Post Office criminal lawyer was just following orders and claims his only mistake was believing those that told him the Horizon system was robust

A former Post Office senior criminal lawyer, who celebrated a court victory that sent a pregnant woman to prison without evidence of a crime, has scattered blame for his life-destroying actions and inaction.

Jarnail Singh, who worked in the Post Office’s criminal law team as a senior lawyer during a period when hundreds of subpostmasters were prosecuted for financial crimes based on evidence from a flawed computer system, known as Horizon, was questioned in the latest hearing in the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry.

His name is well known in the public inquiry, appearing in many documents throughout the current phase, which is looking at the conduct of legal teams at the Post Office at a time when the organisation instigated the widest miscarriage of justice in UK history.

For example, in May, the inquiry heard that in 2012, Singh made celebratory comments to colleagues in an email following the successful prosecution of former subpostmaster Seema Misra, who was sent to prison after being found guilty of theft when unexplained accounting shortfalls appeared in her branch, despite there being no evidence against her. During the trial, Misra raised the possibility that the Horizon system could be to blame for the accounting shortfalls.

In the email, Singh wrote: “After a lengthy trial at Guildford Crown Court [Seema Misra] was found guilty of theft. This case turned from a relatively straightforward general deficiency case to an unprecedented attack on the Horizon system. We were beset with unparallel [sic] disclosure requests by the defence. Through the hard work of everyone, counsel Warwick Tatford, investigation officer Jon Longman and through the considerable expertise of Gareth Jenkins of Fujitsu, we were able to destroy to the criminal standard of proof (beyond reasonable doubt) every single suggestion made by the defence.”

He also said the victory would deter other subpostmasters from jumping on the “Horizon bashing bandwagon”. At the time, Computer Weekly’s first investigation of the Horizon system had spread the word that multiple subpostmasters were experiencing difficulties balancing their accounts with the system.

Misra, who was pregnant with her second child at the time she was sent to prison, had her wrongful conviction overturned in April 2021, after it was proved that the Post Office’s branch software contained errors that could cause phantom shortfalls.

Singh repeated the victorious statement in the email, which defended Horizon, several times over the years in correspondence. When, in 2014, the Post Office communications team asked him for advice on what to say regarding the legal position of Horizon cases when asked questions about it, he forwarded the same. The public affairs executive told him it was “too emotive” for it to use and asked him to stick to the facts.

But despite all this, when questioned during the hearing, Singh denied that the statement was his work and said it was dictated to him. When asked who dictated the words that the case was an “attack on the Horizon system”, he said he didn’t know.

“I don’t know. There was [sic] probably various people … and I think it was approved by Rob Wilson, head of criminal law [at the Post Office],” said Singh. “I would not say anything of that nature.”

Singh also blamed others for his failure to investigate claims made by subpostmasters suspected of financial crimes that the Horizon system was causing unexplained accounting shortfalls. “The mistakes I made presumably were relying on people telling me how great this system was, but I was not the only person working on these investigations,” he said. “We had investigations across the country. Maybe it was just a big organisation and we couldn’t manage it all.”

In December 2013, an email to Singh from a lawyer asked for the current position on cases against subpostmasters. This was after forensic accountancy firm Second Sight had raised concerns in its early investigation into allegations against Horizon. It was also after an external lawyer contracted by the Post Office, Simon Clarke of Cartright King, had advised that the Post Office’s expert witness should not be used again because he knew of computer errors but, in breach of his duties, failed to reveal them during trials of subpostmasters.

Singh was asked how many cases had been worked on for further evidence, how many had been advice to charge and how many were awaiting expert evidence. He answered: “These are not mutually exclusive. As the landscape now stands in most of the cases, it is better that we have the expert instructed as any case begun now will attract some type of Horizon issue because this is the passing bandwagon people are jumping on. When we have a few wins under our belt, the Horizon challenges will melt away like midnight snow.”

Counsel to the inquiry Jason Beer KC asked Singh why it was important that the Post Office criminal law team got “a few wins under its belt". Singh said he didn’t know. Beer asked whether Singh was struggling because he realised “the crassness” of what he wrote and didn’t have a “justification”.

Singh replied: “Not at all. If I could, I would, but at the moment I’m struggling in the sense that I can’t explain what happened in the year 2013, and we’re in the year 2023, on to 2024.”

The importance to the Post Office of prosecuting subpostmasters was made clear in 2014 in an email from Singh to Angela van den Bogerd, a controversial former Post Office executive. He wrote: “There will be cases in which it will be clear from the outset that [the Post Office] will need to conduct [a] criminal investigation with [a] view to potential prosecution to protect [the Post Office] brand and reputation and for business purposes.”

Beer asked why decisions as to whether to launch criminal investigations and pursue prosecutions were “clouded by concerns over the reputation of the Post Office”.

Asked whether one of the business purposes of prosecutions was to protect the integrity of the Horizon system and whether one was for debt recovery, Singh said he did not know.

Although he held a senior position and was the only in-house criminal lawyer at the Post Office after it split from Royal Mail in 2012, Singh distanced himself from any decision-making. When put to him by Beer, Singh agreed he was just following orders and that he was just like “a collector together of pieces of paper and a postbox” for other teams.

Singh’s evidence continues today.

The public inquiry is investigating how hundreds of former subpostmasters were prosecuted or made bankrupt after being blamed for unexplained accounting shortfalls based on evidence from the Horizon computer system used in branches. The system has since been proved to be error-prone and nearly 100 wrongful convictions have been overturned so far.

Computer Weekly first exposed the scandal in 2009, with the stories of seven subpostmasters (see timeline of all Computer Weekly articles about the scandal below).

Read all Computer Weekly articles about the scandal since 2009

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