Post Office Scandal - Solicitors not at risk!?

Posted on Jan 20, 2024. by NTI

The Post Office scandal involving the seriously flawed Horizon software accounting system developed by Fujitsu has finally received the attention it deserved. ITV drama Mr Bates v The Post Office which had over 10million viewers watch the last episode is responsible for highlighting one of the widest miscarriages of justices in British history suffered by hundreds of innocent postmaster and postmistresses who were wrongly convicted and sentenced to prison.

As the son of a sub postmaster, I remember speaking with my dad about the genuine confusion over the Horizon software, as to where the money had gone and how such diligent sub postmasters and postmistresses could have lost huge amounts of money. My dad regards himself as “lucky” for not falling victim to the flaws of Horizon. Unfortunately, his colleague was not so lucky. He was accused of stealing £16,000. My dad remembers asking the Federation Secretary to help his colleague as there was no way he could pay for this supposed loss of £16,000.  After years of his reputation being dragged through the dirt my dad’s colleague had his name cleared and received £23,000 in compensation. Unfortunately, there are hundreds of other cases with false allegations of theft and false accounting resulting in tragic results with many losing their businesses, being declared bankrupt, their families suffering and enduring years of victimisation, bullying and public humiliation.

Despite protestations from sub postmasters claiming their innocence and warnings about the flaws in the Horizon system, the Post Office decided to prosecute with the assistance of its solicitors.

Fujitsu European boss, Paul Patterson, this week admitted that staff knew of bugs, errors and defects in the Horizon IT systems and that the Post Office were made aware of this contemporaneously. Grilled by MPs at a hearing earlier this week, Mr Patterson, said that he was “appalled” that the known glitches were omitted from witness statements used to prosecute hundreds of sub postmasters. Mr Patterson went on to apologise and accepted that Fujitsu had a moral obligation to compensate the victims.

The spotlight has now turned to Post Office executives including disgraced CEO Paula Vennels who recently renounced her CBE. Solicitors involved in litigating against the innocent sub postmasters and sub postmistresses are also in the firing line. The public inquiry has steadily exposed the shortcomings in the prosecutions and exposed people that caused them to happen or to cover them up. The public are rightly outraged by the wrongful convictions and are expecting decisive action and accountability. The solicitors involved in the prosecutions are increasingly becoming the focus and target.


No evidence of an ongoing risk to the public

The Solicitors Regulatory Authority (SRA) began its inquiry into the scandal with a dedicated team looking into the conduct of solicitors in 2021 after the appeals against criminal convictions were successful and previous convictions against sub postmasters/mistresses quashed on the basis that they were unsafe and an afront to public conscience.

The SRA have, however, stated that there is no need for urgent action against those implicated in the scandal. The SRA said ‘At the moment, we do not have evidence to show that any solicitor presents an ongoing risk to the public that needs to be addressed through urgent action.’

However, solicitors are not in the clear. The Chief Executive at the SRA, Paul Philip, said that action would be taken against solicitors who are found to have acted unethically or without independence. He added: ‘We will act as swiftly as we can, but it is important that we get this right. We owe that to everyone impacted in this case and the wider public.’ The public inquiry is not expected to finish until the end of the summer and a report unlikely until the end of the year.

Given the unprecedented levels of media attention and the public’s confidence in the legal profession being severely dented, the SRA are under significant pressure to show the public that it is taking the matter seriously. The SRA have a statutory obligation to investigate the involvement of solicitors and needs to take swift action to demonstrate that it is upholding its pledge of giving the public “full confidence” in the solicitor’s profession. If Mr Bates v The Post Office has shown us anything, it’s that justice and the truth will eventually prevail.

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