The judge in charge of the Post Office Horizon scandal public inquiry has threated “criminal sanctions” against the Post Office if it continues with ongoing “significant failures” in disclosing evidence.
Sir Wyn Williams said today that all future inquiry requests for evidence to the Post Office will carry a notice under Section 21 of the Inquiries Act 2005, which he said “carries a threat of a criminal sanction” including a sentence of up to 51 weeks’ imprisonment.
The move follows a series of disclosure failures by the Post Office during the course of the public inquiry – while Williams also noted that the organisation’s failures to disclose critical information has been a factor throughout the history of what has become the most widespread miscarriage of justice in UK legal history.
Williams was forced to act after further delays in providing documents by the Post Office to the inquiry led to an adjournment of proceedings and a rescheduling of hearings planned for this month. The Post Office has taken 18 months to provide documents in some cases, the inquiry was told.
On 4 July, Williams grilled the senior in-house lawyer at the Post Office, general counsel Ben Foat, over continued delays and problems in providing the inquiry with requested documents.
Only two days later, Williams was forced to postpone a hearing with a critical witness – Gareth Jenkins, former chief architect at Horizon supplier Fujitsu – after “significant” evidence included in thousands of documents was disclosed just hours before Jenkins was set to be questioned by inquiry lawyers for the first time.
Inquiry barrister Jason Beer KC revealed that 4767 documents including some “significant” to Jenkins’ evidence were only received from the Post Office at 10:32pm on 5 July, allowing no time for lawyers to analyse them. Jenkins will now give evidence after the summer break.
The following week, on 11 July, Williams announced that phase four of the statutory inquiry would be adjourned, after the Post Office once more told the inquiry that it would not be possible to provide further documents in time for hearings over the following weeks.
Williams said he is determined to be open minded and at this stage it is not possible to offer definitive views about how the process of disclosure had been managed, but added: “It would be remiss of me to fail to guard against the possibility that there are those who are engaged in the process of disclosure of documents on behalf of the Post Office who are unwilling or unable to comply strictly with requests for disclosure of documents made of them by the inquiry.”
Williams has now called Foat to appear before the inquiry again on 5 September to give further evidence, along with “senior persons who are directly and substantially involved in the disclosure for Phase 4 of the inquiry”.
The inquiry chief said that all future requests for documents or information made to the Post Office will be made pursuant to a Section 21 notice, adding: “For the reasons I have already given, this carries a threat of a criminal sanction.”
He will also now hold regular hearings to discuss disclosure throughout the remainder of the inquiry. He said the hearings have become necessary because of the “significant failures in disclosure on the part of the Post Office”.
Before adjourning the inquiry, Williams asked the subpostmaster victims of the scandal for their views on further delaying the process. He observed that “there was no attempt to disguise the view held by many that the Post Office disclosure failings are deliberate”.
He added: “It does not surprise me that this is the attitude of many former subpostmasters. After all, a failure to disclose crucial information about Horizon was a central finding leading to the quashing of [their] criminal convictions in the Court of Appeal.”
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.
A total of 736 subpostmasters were prosecuted by the Post Office for theft and fraud between 2000 and 2015, based on evidence from the Horizon software they use in branches.
But when 555 subpostmasters successfully sued the Post Office in the High Court for wrongfully blaming and punishing them for unexplained shortages – leading to prison sentences and bankruptcy for some – the fact that the Horizon system was error-prone was proved. Since then, 86 subpostmasters so far have had criminal convictions overturned and many more are expected.