Mr Bates v. The Post Office: How a tv drama may bring renewed focus to a three-year-old Public Inquiry
15 January 2024
When thinking about high profile Public Inquiries, a few media heavyweights spring to mind; Leveson, Chilcot, Grenfell and the Child Sex Abuse Scandal have all dominated headlines at various points in recent history. One that hitherto seems to have slipped below the radar however, is the Post Office Horizon Inquiry.
The scandal has peppered our news feeds over the last couple of weeks thanks to TV drama, Mr Bates v. The Post Office which tells the story of approximately 3,500 postmasters and postmistresses wrongfully accused of stealing from their own Post Offices. Over 900 were prosecuted for theft, fraud and false accounting by the Post Office directly due to a malfunctioning IT system, Horizon, a Fujitsu product.
As anyone who has watched the ITV drama will attest, the facts of the story are almost inconceivable. Among the hundreds of prosecutions, lay stories of individuals who have lost their livelihoods, homes, liberty and reputations with some even taking their own lives.
It has been almost a quarter of a century since the saga began, so many could be forgiven for wondering why the story has largely escaped media attention and what has been done thus far to investigate.
From a criminal standpoint, only 93 convictions have been overturned with 54 being upheld, withdrawn or refused permission to appeal. However, in the last week, Rishi Sunak has tabled plans to expedite the exoneration of postmasters en-masse and may even withdraw the Post Office’s powers of private prosecution.
A non-statutory Inquiry was established to investigate the failings occurring with the Horizon IT system and the events leading to the suspensions, terminations, prosecutions and convictions of subpostmasters. This Inquiry was then converted into a statutory Inquiry in June 2021, and is well underway in terms of hearing and sharing of evidence.
Those that have read our previous articles on the inquiry process will know that the aim of any public inquiry is never to determine criminal or civil liability. So, what part will this Inquiry play in delivering justice?
The Terms of Reference as set by the Inquiry Chair Sir Wyn Williams promises a number of outcomes.
- Understand and acknowledge what went wrong in relation to Horizon, considering all relevant evidence to identify what key lessons must be learned.
- Build upon the findings of the criminal courts and establish a clear account of the implementation and failings of Horizon over its lifecycle along with the Post Office’s use of information from Horizon when taking prosecutorial action.
- Assess whether Post Office Ltd has learned lessons from the criticisms made by Mr Justice Fraser in the criminal court and whether it has delivered or made good progress on the organisational and cultural changes necessary to ensure that a similar case does not reoccur.
- Assess whether the processes and information provided by the Post Office Ltd to postmasters are sufficient to enable both parties to contractually meet their obligations.
The Inquiry is currently in the heart of hearing evidence with Phase 4, which covers; the action against sub-postmasters including policy making, audits and investigations, civil and criminal proceedings, knowledge of and responsibility for failures in investigation and disclosure, yet to conclude.
Already significantly behind it’s intended timescale and goal for the publication of its final report with phases 5, 6 and 7 yet to come, it may see further delays as a result of new potential victims coming forward in recent days emboldened by the TV drama.
Despite these delays, the Horizon Inquiry could be a perfect example of why legal mechanisms such as statutory inquiries are so important; this scandal has left a swathe of individuals with little or no faith in the British justice system and even those whose convictions have been overturned reportedly craving a degree of public explanation and vindication that has not been satiated in the civil or criminal court. One of the often overlooked aims of the Inquiry process is the catharsis for victims and foundation for the restoration of public confidence and no doubt, in this Inquiry, these aims will be paramount.
If you or your company has been contacted by a Public Inquiry by way of the Rule 9 mechanism or otherwise and would like to speak to someone in our team about how best to respond, please contact Daniel Irving or Francesca Reason.
The content of this article is for general information only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. If you require any further information in relation to this article please contact the author in the first instance. Law covered as at January 2024.