The NTI newsroom recently reported on the Post Office scandal and one of the largest miscarriages of justices in British history suffered by hundreds of innocent postmasters and postmistresses who were wrongly convicted and sentenced to prison.
Last month, we reported that following sub postmasters’ successful appeals against their criminal convictions, the spotlight has now turned to the solicitors involved in the litigation. Whilst the Solicitors Regulatory Authority (SRA) have been looking into the conduct of solicitors since 2021, they had initially suggested that there was no need for urgent action against those implicated in the scandal.
Strike offs highly likely
Last week, Professor of law and ethics at Exeter University, Richard Moorhead, said that it was “highly likely” solicitors would be struck off following the public inquiry. He went on to say that he expects for there to be one or two solicitors that will face criminal prosecutions.
Despite supporting the SRA’s cautious approach of waiting until the end of the inquiry, Professor Moorhead called for there to be greater transparency from the SRA in that they should “…provide greater clarity and detail” on what they are doing.
Breach of Ethics and the law
So, what have the Post Office solicitors done wrong? Professor Moorhead claims that the evidence coming to light shows that junior and senior solicitors were either ‘completely unaware’ or ‘complacent’ about their professional obligations. The inquiry has highlighted ‘stark failures that are technical and ethical’.
Speaking at Westminster Legal Policy Forum event on legal ethics on Friday, Professor Moorhead said that "incompetence, complacency and conduct" issues had created a ‘toxic’ mixture. The roles of the solicitors at the heart of the scandal involved aggressive drafting of contracts, unjustified prosecutions and advising then-chief executive Paula Vennells when she appeared to give misleading evidence to the business select committee in 2015. The next phase of the inquiry will also focus on the conduct of the civil litigation brought against the sub-postmasters. This looks set to uncover further breaches of ethics and possibly law.
Moorhead spoke of his concerns regarding the lessons not learnt by the Post Office legal team, when handling compensation claims for victims of the Horizon scandal. He said that he was aware of journalists being threatened by ‘SLAPP-like tactics’ by a law firm in relation to their reporting of the inquiry. SLAPP refers to Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. Essentially many parties often use the threat of costly legal action as a means of suppressing public criticism (as seen in the ITV drama Bates v The Post Office). In an attempt to stop SLAPP, the government introduced anti-SLAPP legislation in October 2023 via the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act 2023.
Despite the recent legislation Moorhead spoke of Post Office lawyers adopting aggressive strategies. One Post Office solicitor’s website boasted of how he is a ‘steamroller that crushes anything that gets in his way’ and another firm could ‘turn a pile of refuse into something that looks great’. It certainly seems as if that was the strategy adopted in the many wrongful claims against sub postmasters and at the heart of the scandal. As the inquiry continues to uncover details of aggressive and unethical conduct, it seems that lawyers have nowhere to hide.