The statutory inquiry into the Post Office Horizon scandal has been disrupted again as a result of the Post Office’s failure to provide documents requested as evidence.
Only last week, the hearing of evidence from a key witness was postponed until after the summer break after relevant documents were disclosed only hours before he was set to face the inquiry.
The Post Office has now told the inquiry that it will not be possible to provide further documents in time for hearings over the next few weeks.
After hearing submissions from the representatives of former subpostmaster who were victims of the Post Office scandal, inquiry chair Wyn Williams announced that phase four of the statutory inquiry would be adjourned, with no hearings over the next two weeks, and a possibility of hearings for a week beginning on 25 July.
Delays in disclosing evidence threatens to derail the statutory public inquiry, which was set up to ascertain how and why subpostmasters were wrongly blamed and punished for accounting discrepancies in their branches. The Post Office has taken 18 months to provide documents in some cases, the inquiry was told.
After the introduction of software from Fujitsu in 2000 to automate mainly manual practices in Post Office branches, subpostmasters began to see unexplained shortfalls in their accounts. They were subsequently blamed for these shortfalls, which didn’t actually exist, and made to repay them. More than 700 were prosecuted for financial crimes, with many serving prison sentences. In total, 86 have so far had wrongful convictions overturned, with many more expected. Thousands more suffered life-changing hardship as a result of failed businesses and repaying unexplained shortfalls.
The latest disclosure failings only came to light after a freedom of information request by campaigner Eleanor Shaikh revealed documents about racist language use by the Post Office to label subpostmasters it suspected of crimes had not been supplied to the inquiry. This led to the inquiry summoning the Post Office’s legal head to explain, which resulted in the Post Office embarking on a search for thousands of documents that should have been disclosed but weren’t.
Inquiry chair Williams said the inquiry is adjourned over the next two weeks, but could hear evidence on 25 July, when witnesses not affected by the disclosure failings are due to be heard: “I will keep under review whether we sit in the last week of July, to preserve the possibility.”
During the hearing, Sam Stein, KC, representing Horizon scandal victims, said the Post Office’s conduct is “retraumatising” victims of the scandal: “It doesn’t matter whether the Post Office is dodgy or incompetent or likely that the Post Office is staffed by dodgy incompetents, the way that our clients are being treated is an outrage and the way that this inquiry is being treated is an outrage.”
Stein said his clients don’t believe that what is happening is the result of difficulties the Post Office is experiencing at this time, but a deliberate choice. “They are living a nightmare and being retruamatised by the Post Office’s actions,” he said.
Stein added that two-thirds of his 150 clients wanted the inquiry adjourned while full disclosure is demanded.
Tim Moloney KC, also representing scandal victims, echoed the words of Stein: “It is an awful position that the postmaster core participants find themselves in, not least them having to listen to the apparent apologies of the Post Office again. The more those apologies are made, the more hollow they sound, but having consulted our core participants, we agree that we should not hear evidence from witnesses this week and next, until disclosure is completed.”
Edward Henry KC said the group of former subpostmasters he represents in the inquiry “were unanimous that this phase of the inquiry be adjourned and that no further evidence, including expert evidence, be called until September”.
He said the Post Office’s behaviour in failing to disclose information is no surprise to the people he represents. He described it as “a vicious institution that had crushed them, suffocated their right to a fair trial, putting some of them in prison or subjecting them to penury, some of them for over two decades.”
He said this moment is a “watershed”, adding: “Unless the inquiry can force the Post Office to get its house in order, we can have no confidence that this will not happen again and again and again.”
There were calls for the threat of criminal legal action against the Post Office and staff if disclosure failures continue.
Peer James Arbuthnot recently told Computer Weekly that the Post Office’s approach to prosecutions of subpostmasters suspected of theft and fraud, including disclosure, contravened the established rules of justice. He called for all Post Office prosecutions to be reviewed, not just those related to the Horizon system.
In 2009, a Computer Weekly investigation first revealed that subpostmasters were being blamed for unexplained accounting shortfalls, which they believed to be caused by software errors.