Legal ethics academic enlisted to advise on compensation scheme for Post Office scandal victims

Richard Moorhead joins independent board advising on scheme for postmasters whose settlement was swallowed up by legal costs

A legal academic who is investigating the role lawyers played in the Post Office Horizon IT scandal has been appointed by the government to advise on a compensation scheme for a group of its victims. 

Richard Moorhead, Professor of Law and Professional Ethics at Exeter University, has joined an independent advisory board of parliamentarians and academics set up to help ensure a group of more than 500 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses (SPMs) who took legal action against the Post Office are fairly compensated. 

The body will work with top 50 law firm Freeths and the Justice for Postmasters Alliance to design and implement a scheme to compensate the group, whose landmark settlement of £43m plus legal costs in 2019 was mostly swallowed up by the associated costs of funding their case, which was brough via a group litigation order (GLO)

They were subsequently ineligible for another scheme – the Historical Shortfall Scheme (HSS) – that was set up to compensate other affected postmasters.

Moorhead said: “As an independent member of the board I see it as vital that the government delivers on the need to provide prompt and, most importantly fair, compensation to the GLO group members.”

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The advisory board was established in December by business minister Kevin Hollinrake, and is led by Professor Chris Hodges, Emeritus Professor of Justice Systems at Oxford University’s Centre for Socio-Legal Studies.

Lord James Arbuthnot and Kevan Jones MP — prominent campaigners on behalf of the scandal’s victims — are also on the board.

Moorhead has been leading the Post Office Project with Exeter University colleague Professor Rebecca Helm and Dr Karen Nokes, from UCL. Its brief is to investigate the scandal to ensure ‘rules and practices change, where appropriate, to make unethical behaviour less likely to happen in the first place and more likely to be punished when it does.’

‘Horizon is about software failings certainly, but it also clearly raises management failings and legal failings,’ the trio wrote in a submission to the public inquiry into the scandal last year. ‘Harms directly arose from the way legal work was managed and conducted: people were threatened, sued, fired, and prosecuted via legal work. Denials, non-disclosure, and delay were enabled, at least in part, by legal work.’

The Horizon accounting system, which was developed by Fujitsu, was introduced by the Post Office from 1999. The system made it look like money was missing from Post Office branches, leading to suspensions, termination of contracts, wrongful prosecutions and convictions.

To date 81 SPMs have had their Horizon-related convictions overturned. More than 3,000 SPMs were affected by the scandal.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority is a ‘core participant’ in the public enquiry, which is chaired by retired high court judge Sir Wyn Williams. It said in a statement issued in October that while it was ‘assessing whether individuals we regulate fulfilled their duties’ it anticipated that it would ‘need to wait to the end of the inquiry process before we can take any further formal steps’.

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