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Mr Bates v The Post Office - The Good and the Bad of Justice

Posted: Friday, 12 January 2024 @ 11:38

If you have not seen it, you really should so so, as the four part ITV drama of the Post Office Scandal will forever change your perspective on many things including how you see British justice, how apparently trusted organisations can act, or how people can be rewarded for failure. In an election year, it may change how you vote.

It is one thing to be aware of the Post Office scandal, it is quite another to absorb the brilliant tv drama which brings to life the whole miscarriage of justice before your eyes.

More than 700 Post Office branch managers were convicted after the faulty Fujitsu system made it look like money was missing from their shops.

The series follows the true story of the scandal surrounding the Post Office's installation of a new computer system, Horizon, developed by  Fujitsu, which turned out to be faulty and recorded false accounting figures.

Between 2000 and 2015, hundreds of sub-postmasters, including Alan Bates, were prosecuted and for many the human cost was terrible.

Until the recent announcement by the government, just 93 have been able to clear their names in the courts, leaving hundreds unable to claim compensation.

For a detailed written perspective it is also worth reading the Private Eye account which covers the whole saga in a succinct way.  

Some points: 

1. Paula Vennells was Post Office Chief executive from April 2012 to March 2019. She was richly rewarded in the top job, her pay reaching £717,500 in 2018/19. Of this, £388,000 came in performance bonuses mostly linked to the company’s strategic plan to “achieve commercial sustainability and profitability”.

2. Only £36,000 was deducted from a “short term” bonus because of “the ongoing postmaster group litigation and its impact on the business”.

3. The 2019 new year honours list gave Vennells a CBE for “services to the Post Office and charity." 

 4.  After resigning in April 2019, Vennells acquired two very good posts: nonexecutive director at the Cabinet Office and chair of Imperial Healthcare NHS Trust, responsible for five large London hospitals. 

5. The man who should have been holding Vennells to scrutiny was Tim Parker, who became chairman of the Post Office in October 2015. There is no evidence of his questioning the approach to the Horizon scandal. He also had a number of chairmanships including the HM Courts and Tribunals Service, the National Trust, Samsonite luggage company plus advisory roles at CVC and Monarch Capital private equity firms.

6. The company, Fujitsu has been awarded a further £4.9 billion in state contracts since the December 2019 High Court ruling that its systems “weren’t remotely robust.” 

1 The Good  

If you to Court and get yourself to the High Court there, a Judge can probably expose the truth and you can get "some" justice.  In the High Court on behalf of 555 Claimants the judge ruled In a serious indictment of the Post Office’s culture, when he delivered his judgment on 15 March 2019, Mr Justice Fraser criticised half of the Post Office 14 witnesses for being less than honest (under oath).  When it came to an “obdurate” refusal to produce “plainly important documents”, Fraser concluded that the Post Office’s stance “would be a worrying position were it to be adopted by any litigant; the Post Office is an organisation responsible for providing a public service, which in my judgment makes it even worse.”

2 Be Very Careful How You Interact With Technology 

A number of people very convicted on the basis of flawed technology and an abuse of power by those using it. Despite the Post Office(and the CPS to a lesser extent) having to prove their case beyond reasonable doubt, criminal convictions followed. When you interact with any technology you want to be able to hold it to account. By way of example, my firm does not use Paypal for buying things/receiving money as if you have a problem you do not have a human being to talk to and there is an inadequate redress mechanism.   

3. Inquiries are Not Timely But Are Costly and Show Delayed Justice

There is a public inquiry(which should help get more information) is currently sitting to consider the role of Fujitsu’s Horizon IT system in the scandal which was established in September 2020 and yet some of the key participants, like former Post Office boss Paula Vennells and Fujitsu engineers, have yet to give evidence and some are demanding immunity if they do so. Like all inquiries this will be expensive and delayed.  By way of example, there are currently 15 public inquiries taking place, some concerning matters that happened even longer ago than the Post Office scandal. The inquiry into the infected blood given to haemophiliacs, causing HIV and hepatitis C, can be traced to events in the 1970s. Around 1,000 people died as a result but only small amounts of compensation have been paid out. The inquiry into the handling of the coronavirus pandemic was formally established on 28 June 2022 and has already cost over £56 million up to 30 September 2023.

4 A Determined(and Well Funded) Defendant Can Use A Variety of Hard Tactics 

 In this case the Post Office used a sham mediation scheme with postmasters to offset political/legal pressure and in this case had applied for the High Court Judge to “recuse” himself from the case, ie drop out, on the ground that he was biased – citing 109 paragraphs of his first trial judgment. It was a clear attempt to halt the litigation. Here the judge did not take long to decide that he was not biased, at which point the Post Office took the matter to the appeal court. Arguments advanced by the expensive QC retained by the Post Office for the exercise, Lord (Anthony) Grabiner, were “misconceived”, “fatally flawed”, “untenable”, “demonstrably wrong” and “without substance.” This illustrates the inherent difficulty the small person has a highly contested litigation. 

5 There Is No Complete Justice 

The high cost of High Court battles means that some cases may not make it to court without funding. The High Court matter ended by consent when the Post Office agreed to pay costs of £58 million, without admitting liability, and compensation was therefore not awarded. Of that payment, £46 million went to the financial backers. This looks unattractive(my firm would only take a maximum one third of any kind of no win no fee type arrangement) but due to the inherent risk of the litigation process may be the only mechansim to get to Court to expose the truth. The company, Fujitsu have not contributed to any of the settlement to the Post Office workers.