Post Office scandal points to ‘corporate-legal cover up culture’ within profession, academic claims

Lecture by Richard Moorhead suggests existence of ‘orthodoxy’ in which clients’ interests trump justice
Windsor, UK- Feb 10, 2020: Post Office Sign outside a post office in Windsor

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The involvement of so many Post Office lawyers in the wrongful conviction of hundreds of subpostmasters and mistresses (SPMs) suggests the existence of a “corporate-legal cover up culture” within the legal profession, according to a leading commentator on the Post Office Horizon scandal. 

In a lecture at the University of Strathclyde Law School last Thursday (31 May), Richard Moorhead, professor of law and professional ethics at the University of Exeter, said the approach of lawyers caught up in the scandal to professional standards “seems to point in one way: lawyers repeatedly regarding the best interest of their client as first and last in the professional canon”.

He said evidence being gathered by the public Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry is showing how “adversarial, tactical partisanship trumps justice repeatedly”.

“It poses the question, how typical are the problems we have seen?” he added. “How common beyond the scandal itself? Rather than having a legal compensation culture, might we have its opposite, a corporate-legal cover-up culture?”

Moorhead’s comments come during a crucial stage of the inquiry, which has seen a procession of in-house lawyers and external legal advisers defend their decision making under forensic questioning from the inquiry’s legal team as well as counsel representing the scandal’s victims.

The Post Office now concedes that between 1999 and 2015, 700 SPMs were convicted in cases in which evidence provided by the faulty Horizon IT system may have featured. Many were jailed and financially ruined.

After prosecutions were halted, the Post Office went on to defend the integrity of Horizon in a group claim brought against it by 550 SPMs. Bates versus Post Office settled in 2019 after a scathing judgment by Mr Justice Fraser, who wrote that denials about the existence of bugs was “the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the earth is flat”.

Last month, in an unprecedented move, a bill was passed quashing the convictions of all SPMs impacted by the scandal.

In his speech, Moorhead drew comparisons with last month’s report into the infected blood scandal, which concluded that the infection of 30,000 people between 1970 and 1991 with HIV and hepatitis could have been largely avoided. 

The report’s author, Sir Brian Langstaff, said a better expression than cover up to describe what happened was “hiding the truth”, which included “not only deliberate concealment but also a lack of candour” involving the “retelling of half-truths”.

Last month, the Post Office’s former chief executive, Paula Vennells, broke down on several occasions while giving evidence to the inquiry as she reflected on her role leading an organisation responsible for what is regarded as the widest miscarriage of justice in UK history.

In 2015, she had assured a parliamentary committee there was no evidence of miscarriages of justice. This ran counter to advice delivered to the Post Office in 2013 by barrister Simon Clarke, of the Post Office’s prosecuting firm Cartwright King, that the credibility of an expert witness relied upon by the Post Office to secure convictions – senior Fujitsu engineer Gareth Jenkins – was “fatally undermined” because he knew about the existence of bugs that hadn’t been disclosed.

Vennells claimed not to be aware of Clarke’s advice and an array of other internal documents pointing to problems with Horizon and the potential for miscarriages of justice to have occurred.

In one of the inquiry’s many dramatic moments to date, counsel to the inquiry Jason Beer KC asked her whether she was the “unluckiest CEO in the United Kingdom” given “the documents that you tell us in your witness statement that you didn’t see and in the light of the assurances that you tell us about in your witness statement that you were given by Post Office staff”.

Moorhead cited the absence of an investigation in 2013 into the circumstances behind Jenkins’ provision of flawed expert evidence and the failure to disclose his unreliability as a witness to convicted SPMs as examples of “legion mistakes that the lawyers cannot now defend”.

He suggested the existence of an orthodoxy within the profession defined by “zealous interpretation of facts and law in ways that suit the interests of clients stretched beyond propriety”.

He concluded: “The question for the regulators, the inquiry, and perhaps even the courts, is how orthodox is this orthodoxy; how honest; how lacking in integrity, and what should we do about it?”

After a week-long break, the inquiry, which is overseen by retired High Court judge Sir Wyn Lewis Williams, resumes today (3 June) in London.

Hearings are due to conclude by the end of September and Williams has said he will produce his final report “as soon as is reasonably practicable following the completion of the evidence gathering”.

Both the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Bar Standards Board have said they do not plan to take any regulatory action in relation to the scandal until the inquiry has concluded.

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