Thoughts on Post Office Scandal – Part 1

25th January 2024

Over and over again, these past few weeks, I’ve heard the following two questions: (1) what caused the Post Office scandal, and (2) why did it take a tv series for it to become so widely and publicly known?

This article attempts to answer the first of those questions, and I will grapple with the second -including a look at the power of the media – in a second article, next week.

I have carefully kept under the radar most of my legal career, but not long ago I joined the LinkedIn campaign, and since then I’ve posted about different strands of the scandal on an almost daily basis. I first learnt about it some years ago, from articles I read from time to time, mostly in Private Eye and sometimes in the broadsheets, but the game-changer for me was Nick Wallis’s 2021 book ‘the Great Post Office Scandal’. As I read this tome, paced more like a thriller, I couldn’t begin to comprehend either why or how the scandal had happened.

This has been been puzzling me for a while, but I had a light-bulb moment yesterday when I read this news article.

Raymond Grant, who gave evidence to the Statutory Inquiry yesterday, was a former Post Office investigator in charge of the case of William Quarm, a sub-postmaster on the Scottish island of South Uist. Notwithstanding the quashing of Quarm’s conviction for embezzlement by the Court of Criminal Appeal in Edinburgh, Mr Grant wasn’t buying it: he told the Inquiry in no uncertain terms that he still thinks the sub-postmaster is a thief.

Why is this relevant? I believe that it is a microcosm of everything that has gone wrong here: so many of the protagonists – from top to bottom – have simply been unable to change tack. In essence, they can’t be shifted from their view that because the sub-postmasters have easy access to monies, many of them can’t help themselves from taking it. This is notwithstanding the well-publicised fatally flawed Horizon system, and the ruling of a panel of senior judges who overturned Mr Quarm’s conviction. To Mr Grant, and others like him, those empirical facts don’t change a thing, and Mr Quarm is still guilty of stealing money from his till.

So let’s briefly analyse other examples of that inflexibility of thinking in the broader context of the scandal:

  1. One Post Office CEO after another, as well as other senior board members, were told by Fujitsu that the Horizon system was robust, even though that flew in the face of actual and on the ground evidence, which from the late 1990s pointed to system flaws and bugs which caused balancing problems for users. Post Office management simply closed its eyes and relied on Fujitsi assurances.
  2. Second Sight were expert investigative forensic accountants who were called in to look at Horizon, and to provide an objective report about it to the Post Office. When their findings were adverse to Post Office interests, instead of calling a halt to prosecutions of sub-postmasters – which were tantamount to persecution –  they were simply sacked.
  3. Internal and external lawyers – solicitors and barristers alike – were no more flexible or open-minded, seemingly losing all sense of objectivity, and forgetting both their training on professional conduct, and a greater sense of moral duty that should be instilled in lawyers to see that justice is done (and their explicit duties to the court about that). No better example of this ‘group think’ exists than Womble Bond Dickinson partner Stephen Dilley, who remained silent at the Inquiry when asked directly whether he had anything to say to Lee Castleton. Mr Castleton, as many of you will know, was bankrupted by the Post Office to set an example to other sub-postmasters not to fight against it, irrespective of the merits of the claim against him.
  4. The Post Office is publicly owned – its shareholder representative being the Department of Industry and Trade. One Government minister after another – from all the major parties – chose to ignore the plight of sub-postmasters, notwithstanding a number of MPs raising in Parliament and elsewhere their constituent sub-postmasters’ issues with the automated Horizon system that controlled and regulated their Post Office accounts.
  5. Computers don’t lie, do they? Except possibly they do. The Post Office’s investigative team, management and lawyers, and even judges and politicians, all fell into this trap, one after another like lemmings off a cliff. Who were they more likely to believe? A sub-postmaster, even one with an impeccable record and standing in the community, and with no evidence of physical stolen cash or of having benefitted from their ill-gotten gains? Or would it be the Horizon computer system? We sadly already know the answer to this question.

In summary then, there were obviously different and a multitude of causes behind the Post Office scandal, and this short article can’t even begin to do justice to addressing what those are. That said, I have tried to point to a consistent theme of tunnel vision, group think, and stubbornness on the part of so many people, who, in the case of a wide number of the protagonists, can properly be described as bad actors. All of their actions – or failures to act – contributed on so many different levels to explaining not only why the scandal arose in the first place, but why it is still on-going and unresolved.

Hopefully, public outrage is going to change the paradigm, and justice will start to be done. And let’s not forget there are so many unsung heroes out there – I will name check you in a future piece but you know who you are – without whose sterling efforts, the can would still be being kicked down the road.

In closing, watch this space for my next Passle article, and one by tech partner Raoul Lumb about the Horizon issues, and the likely impact that the scandal will have on updating statutory provisions about reliance on computer evidence.