Will The Post Office Horizon IT Scandal Change The UK Legal Sector?

As the independent statutory Post Office Horizon IT scandal Inquiry continues throughout 2023 and beyond, significant scrutiny is being placed on the actions and conduct of those within the legal profession who contributed to the unsafe and unlawful criminal convictions of hundreds of innocent sub-postmasters. Newly announced academic research also aims to better understand the legal failings associated with the Post Office scandal. So, will the aftermath of the Post Office Horizon IT scandal ultimately lead to positive change in the UK’s legal sector?

What Happened In The Post Office Horizon IT Scandal?

In the late 1990s, the Post Office rolled out a new IT accounting system called ‘Horizon’. The software caused financial discrepancies, which made it appear that certain branches had financial shortfalls. As a result, the Post Office took civil and criminal legal action against hundreds of sub-postmasters for theft, false accounting and/or fraud. These resulted in criminal convictions, false confessions, imprisonments, defamation, loss of livelihood, bankruptcy, divorce, and, in some cases, suicide.

Following a successful claim against the Post Office by sub-postmasters, it was confirmed that 555 convictions were, in fact, unsafe and had been obtained unlawfully. As of 2022, 736 convictions had been identified, and 83 convictions had been overturned, with many more expected to be quashed.

An Inquiry into the Post Office Horizon IT scandal was established to look into what is now widely viewed as the biggest miscarriage of justice in UK history in September 2020, overseen by retired High Court Judge Sir Wyn Williams. According to the Inquiry website, “Sir Wyn is tasked with ensuring there is a public summary of the failings which occurred with the Horizon IT system at the Post Office leading to the suspension, termination of sub-postmasters’ contracts, prosecution and conviction of sub-postmasters”.

Serious Questions Over The Conduct Of Legal Representatives

The broadcast of the BBC Panorama documentary in April 2022, in which a number of serious questions were raised, added to the mounting questions over the involvement of the legal profession in the scandal. The programme featured an interview with solicitor Issy Hogg, who acted on behalf of wrongfully prosecuted sub-postmasters, who stated that the Post Office knew about issues with their Horizon software and question marks over prosecutions already brought, but it ‘ploughed on’ regardless.

In April 2022, the SRA was granted “unfettered” access to all documents relating to the Post Office Horizon scandal, allowing them to determine if any lawyers had committed misconduct. It is believed that the ongoing Inquiry will need to reach its conclusion before any prosecution will be brought by the SRA.

In October 2022, the lead counsel to the Post Office Horizon Inquiry stated that the role of solicitors, “some of them senior”, would be placed under scrutiny. Jason Beer KC told the Inquiry that many solicitors and barristers gave the Post Office advice over several years. He went on to say, “The inquiry will be looking at how the advice that was being given in relation to the approach to mediation and the subsequent group litigation, influenced or was influenced by advice that was given in relation to the criminal appeals”. The Inquiry is also looking into the merits of the legal advice received and whether it was “within the range of what a reasonable practitioner might consider to be appropriate”.

New Academic Study Into Legal Failings

On 18th April 2023, University College London and the University of Exeter announced a new landmark research study to be funded by the Economic and Social Research Council into the legal failings associated with the Post Office Horizon IT scandal. The study, which will be led by Professor Richard Moorhead, Professor Rebecca Helm, and Dr Karen Nokes, aims to:

  • Recommend ethical and cultural changes necessary within the legal sector to prevent similar injustices from occurring in the future.
  • Review the conduct of legal practitioners throughout the matter
  • Look at how the scandal was allowed to develop over 20 years, and
  • Consider the implications that the miscarriage of justice will have on the legal professional ethics and the in-house legal sector.

Researchers plan to interview sub-postmasters and other key stakeholders involved in the scandal to build a case study that will allow them to better understand how lawyers were involved in the prosecution of those affected.

As Professor Moorhead stated, “The research will enable us to deepen our engagement with the victims affected by the scandal; ensure that the right lessons are learned about what went wrong and why; and work on practical strategies to reduce the chances of such terrible events happening again.”

Final Words

The Post Office Horizon IT scandal has raised serious questions about the professional and ethical behaviours of the Post Office’s in-house and external legal consultants and how these led to the ultimate outcome, i.e. the wrecking of hundreds of innocent and hard-working people’s lives. As Richard Moorhead, professor of law and professional ethics at Exeter Law School, wrote in 2021, “If we ask the traditional question of all such scandals, “where were the lawyers?”, the only response is, “where weren’t they?”. Because they were either at the heart of it or ought to have been. Not solely responsible, of course, but importantly responsible”. We will endeavour to keep you informed as more details emerge from the SRA, the statutory Inquiry, and the new academic research.

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