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Post Office lawyer was a jack of all trades, but failed his own

Post Office IT scandal inquiry hears how a lawyer was at the centre of the Post Office’s attempts to prevent problems with its IT system becoming public knowledge

Post Office internal lawyer Rodric Williams turned his attention to all manner of Post Office challenges while failing to meet the code of conduct of his chosen profession, the public inquiry into the Post Office scandal has heard.

During the latest inquiry hearings, a barrister representing subpostmaster victims said Williams was at the centre of the “web” and “part of” attempts to hush up the Horizon scandal at the Post Office.

Through internal documents, it was revealed that Williams was involved throughout the Post Office’s attempts to prevent knowledge of problems with the Horizon software becoming known outside the organisation, amid challenges to its reliability from subpostmasters, MPs, the press and lawyers.

He advised the Post Office communications department on how to respond to journalists and even gave his uninformed view on reported tech problems from those running its branches. But he failed to meet the expected standards of his own profession, the inquiry was told.

Williams joined the Post Office in 2011 when it was facing serious questions over the reliability of its accounting system, used in thousands of branches, and its role in the prosecution and financial ruin of subpostmasters.

In 2009, Computer Weekly revealed the problems subpostmasters were experiencing with the Horizon system, supplied by Fujitsu. Seven former subpostmasters told their stories while, behind the scenes, the Post Office was creating a strategy to suffocate the story (see timeline of all Computer Weekly articles on the scandal since 2009).

After the introduction of the Horizon IT system, between 1999 and 2015 the Post Office prosecuted more than 700 people based on data the system produced. It also forced subpostmasters to repay money that the system showed was missing. A High Court victory in 2019 saw subpostmasters prove the Horizon system was to blame for unexplained shortfalls, raising the prospect that many of them had been convicted and even imprisoned wrongly, with many more financially ruined, through no fault of their own.

Williams was appearing at the Post Office Horizon scandal in the latest phase 5 and 6 hearing, with his oft-repeated phrases, as he nervously failed to answer question after question, being: “Could you repeat your question? I can’t contextualise that. I can’t comment on that.” Sentences that he never finished led to dead ends and the inquiry chair was forced to step in on several occasions to remove ambiguity.  

Williams is still employed as a senior lawyer at the Post Office, while former subpostmasters wait for justice and financial redress after as much as two decades. He is currently involved in the delivery of financial redress for victims – an irony not lost on those who suffered at the hands of the Post Office and the actions and inaction of its staff, including Williams himself.

The makeshift adviser

By 2011, when Williams joined the Post Office, the problems being experienced by subpostmasters were widely known. The media, including Computer Weekly, were asking questions, and the inquiry heard that the communications team was seeking advice from Williams on how to respond to them.

Inquiry barrister Jason Beer KC described Williams as “the point man for media relations in the Post Office’s legal team”, which he acknowledged as being the case.

His lack of understanding of the complex IT system and the challenges faced by subpostmasters didn’t stop him dismissing questions sent from journalists to the PR team.

In one example, when a journalist requested the Post Office back up its claim that subpostmasters were happy with the Horizon system, Williams told the Post Office’s PR department: “We don’t need to do research on Horizon – it’s the system we provide to our agents and require them to use. If agents don’t like it, they can choose not to provide services for us.”

He described subpostmaster claims as the “whims of each individual agent”. His ill-judged comments went beyond that of journalists and subpostmasters, directing them at statutory body the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC).

When the CCRC launched its investigation into potential miscarriages of justice at the hands of the Post office in 2015, after subpostmasters submitted applications to have their cases reviewed, Williams was dismissive. Referring to its requests for information, Williams said the CCRC was “jumping down every rabbit hole” by asking the organisation to disclose information about bugs in the Horizon system.

One example was when the CCRC requested an explanation of a software bug revealed by Computer Weekly in 2015, known as the Dalmellington bug.

Furthermore, Williams didn’t just advise PR, but passed his wisdom to the Post Office’s most senior executives. One campaigner central to revealing the Dalmellington bug was Tim McCormack. The former subpostmaster put pressure on the Post Office through his relentless campaign for the truth. He, too, was the subject of disparaging comments from Williams.

McCormack, a former tech professional and previously a subpostmaster, contacted Post Office CEO Paula Vennells with an ultimatum. In an email from October 2015, shown to the inquiry, McCormack offered to Vennells “clear and unquestionable evidence of an intermittent bug in Horizon”.

This was the Dalmellington bug, which had been discovered but was yet to be made public. McCormack told Vennells that the bug caused thousands of pounds in losses to subpostmasters.

“Tonight there is a branch in your network sitting on a loss. The money does not exist. It is the result of several one-sided transactions being entered erroneously by the system, not the operator,” wrote McCormack.

He said it was her last chance to accept that “what I have been telling you these past few years is true”. He offered to take her to the branch and to show her the evidence he had collected.

Williams offered his advice. In an internal Post Office email exchange about McCormack’s email, Williams replied that the Post Office should write to him “in the same terms that we have every other person who has said they have evidence of flaws”, adding: “Generally, my view is that this guy is a bluffer, who keeps expecting us to march to his tune. I don’t think we should do so, but instead respond with a straight bat.”

Soon after, Computer Weekly, working with McCormack and the Communication Workers Union, revealed an internal email from Post Office IT support confirming the existence of the Dalmellington bug, the fact that subpostmasters were not told about it, and that it would be months before the problem was fixed.

The bug was later used as evidence in the High Court group litigation order, where subpostmasters successfully proved the Horizon system was to blame for accounting shortfalls.

The Post Office’s overall approach to the CCRC was to erect hurdles to its work, according to Edward Henry KC, representing scandal victims at the inquiry. During the hearing, Williams was shown a letter he wrote to lawyers at external law firm Bond Dickinson.

Henry put it to Williams that the Post Office was trying to “frustrate and bring the CCRC proceedings to a close by any means possible”.

Williams disagreed, but was shown the bullet points he gave to the external solicitors as potential actions. The first bullet point said: “Push [the CCRC] on their jurisdiction to take this action... which was slightly tenuous at the start.”

Henry asked: “So, challenge and push the CCRC on their jurisdiction, correct?” To which Williams replied: “That’s been put forward as a possible area to develop, yes.”

The second bullet point suggested: “Apply some political pressure to the [Department for Business, Innovation and Skills] and Ministry of Justice.” Williams said the bullet points were “for discussion”.

The CCRC and its subsequent reviews led to a large proportion (around 100) of the convictions based on Horizon data that have been overturned so far.

Failed his profession

Williams’ greatest failing was in his own profession, the inquiry was told.

Henry said to Williams: “You’re a lawyer? Not a fixer?” Williams agreed with Henry that he owed duties to the court and his code of conduct. Henry continued: “In representing your employer, the Post Office, during the period 2012 to 2021, did you discharge those duties at all times?” Williams said that he “sought to”.

Henry said: “I strongly suggest you did not because you were part of the suppression, obstruction and covering up of people’s Article 6 appellate rights [right to a fair hearing], weren’t you?”

In his position as a legal manager, Williams was privy to information that could have supported the defence cases of subpostmasters being prosecuted by the Post Office, and had opportunities to prevent the non-disclosure of this information.

The inquiry heard that a lawyer from Post Office solicitors Womble Bond Dickinson (WBD) had emailed Williams in 2016 to discuss disclosure of the Post Office guidelines for investigations of subpostmasters.

The WBD lawyer proposed trying to suppress the guidelines “for as long as possible”, with the email reading: “For now, we’ll do what we can to avoid disclosure of these guidelines and try to do so in a way that looks legitimate. However, we are ultimately withholding a key document and this may attract some criticism from [claimants’ law firm] Freeths. If you disagree with this approach, do let me know.”

Williams did not disagree with the mail and did not respond. Asked whether he should have intervened, he said: “I would like to say I did that, but I didn’t.”

At the end of Henry’s questions, Williams said: “I’m truly sorry, you know, that I’ve been associated with this, I’m truly sorry.”

Henry said: “You weren’t associated with it, Mr Williams. You were in the middle of the web and you were part of it.”

Williams was not alone as there were many who were part of the cover-up. During the inquiry, evidence emerged of the Post Office’s malevolent approach to disclosure as early as 2011, even before Williams’ time there began. Tim Moloney KC, acting for Horizon scandal victims, revealed an internal email from October 2011, at a time when members of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance were instigating legal challenges to Horizon-based prosecutions.

Aware of these challenges, Royal Mail senior lawyer Emily Springford emailed senior Post Office executives – including head of partnerships, Angela van den Bogerd; head of IT, Lesley Sewell; general counsel, Susan Crichton; and head of security, John Scott – advising them how to avoid having to disclose potentially damning information about Horizon problems to the subpostmasters’ legal teams.

The email said: “It is very important that we control the creation of documents which relate to any of the [information], which might be potentially damaging to [the Post Office’s] defence to the claims.

“Where it’s necessary to create a document containing critical comment on these issues, it will in certain circumstances be possible to claim privilege over the document, so that the Post Office will not have to disclose it in any proceedings. As litigation is now a distinct possibility, the document will be privileged if its dominant purpose is to give or receive legal advice about the litigation or to gather evidence for use in litigation,” the email continued.

By October 2011, when this email was sent, there were 85 legal cases being put together by JFSA members.

Williams was also accused of being involved in aggressive tactics to defeat subpostmasters suing the Post Office in the High Court group litigation order (GLO) of 2018/19. The Post Office has been accused by the JFSA of embarking on a war of attrition during the GLO, ramping up costs until the claimants ran out of money.

Williams was part of the Post Office’s GLO steering group. Barrister Christopher Jacobs, representing scandal victims, drew the inquiry’s attention to a Post Office GLO steering group document, which outlined potential strategies.

Although not a recommended option, one stated: “Stretch out the litigation process so as to increase costs in the hope that the claimants, and more particularly their litigation funder, decide that it is too costly to pursue the litigation and give up.”

Jacobs said: “That is exactly what happened, isn’t it, Mr Williams - exactly what happened?”

Williams denied this.

High cost of his choices

Late in the hearing, there was a damning insight into Williams’ conduct from the inquiry chair.

In 2013, Post Office lawyers were warned by a contracted barrister that an expert witness used in previous trials of subpostmasters could not be used in the future. The advice, from Simon Clarke of Cartwright King, recommended this because the witness, Fujitsu’s Gareth Jenkins, knew of computer errors, but in breach of his duties failed to reveal them during trials of subpostmasters.

This was known by the Post Office from 2013, but it failed to inform the courts that the prosecutions could be unsafe. The Post Office even failed to inform the CCRC, which only found out about what is known as the Clarke Advice in the Court of Appeal in 2021.

Former subpostmaster Seema Misra was wrongly prosecuted in 2010 based on evidence from Fujitsu’s Jenkins. She was sent to prison and had a criminal record until it was overturned in 2021.

Inquiry chair Wyn Williams put to Post Office lawyer Williams that despite knowing that evidence given in court by an expert witness acting for the Post Office couldn’t be trusted, he “personally appeared still to be asserting to the world that the conviction [based on that evidence] was safe, among other things, because expert evidence had been called and the jury, by inference, must have accepted it.” He added: “Those two things don’t sit very easily together, do they?”

The Post Office legal head replied: “No, they don’t, sir. No, they don’t.”

Perhaps as the inquiry gets nearer to the core, there will be more hearings like that of Williams. Next up is his former boss, Susan Crichton, Post Office general counsel, who appears on Tuesday 23 April.

The Post Office scandal was first exposed by Computer Weekly in 2009, revealing the stories of seven subpostmasters and the problems they suffered due to the accounting software (see timeline of Computer Weekly articles about the scandal below).

• Also read: What you need to know about the Horizon scandal

• Also watch: ITV’s documentary – Mr Bates vs The Post Office: The real story

Read all Computer Weekly articles about the scandal since 2009

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