UK legal regulators urged to prioritise policing of ethics in response to Post Office scandal

Legal ethics academic Richard Moorhead highlights risks posed by culture of ‘adversarial partisanship’ and ‘excessive zeal’ in profession

A legal academic and commentator on the Post Office scandal has called on the UK’s legal regulators to prioritise the policing of ethics in response to what is widely regarded as the largest miscarriage of justice in UK history.

Richard Moorhead, professor of law and professional ethics at the University of Exeter, told the Westminster Legal Policy Forum on Friday (9 February) that the prosecution of 900 sub-postmasters and postmistresses (SPMs) on the basis of information provided by the faulty Horizon accounting system highlighted a pressing need for regulators to set out how they will “move from business as usual to making ethics a priority”.

Moorhead said lawyers were “at the heart” of the scandal, which is being investigated by the ongoing Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry, but argued it had unearthed “broader cultural problems in the profession… symptomatic of how adversarial partisanship trumps justice repeatedly” leading to “excessive zeal” by practitioners on behalf of their clients.

Moorhead outlined three phases to the scandal: the prosecutions, which took place between 1999 and 2015, the “middle years” when the Post Office sought to “contain and neutralise” the SPMs’ campaign for justice, and the “final years” when “much, but not all, of the Post Office wrongdoing was exposed”.

The final years, he said, featured an “aggressive rearguard” during the Bates versus Post Office group claim, which settled in 2019, and a “subtler containment strategy” in the lead up to the quashing by the Court of Appeal of 39 convictions in 2021 in Hamilton & Others v Post Office.

He said: “That decisions ranging between the merely questionable and the clearly outrageous should be sprinkled across so many years, within and outside the Post Office, in-house and private practice, bar and solicitor, junior and very, very senior, suggest that professional ethics is something about which practitioners are insufficiently interested, or complacent about, or insufficiently accountable for.”

Last month, the Solicitors Regulation Authority said it was investigating “live cases into a number of solicitors and law firms who were working on behalf of the Post Office/Royal Mail Group”. 

Its investigation “covers multiple, multifaceted issues where there may have been potential misconduct” with “new issues and evidence” emerging on an ongoing basis, particularly as a result of the public inquiry. 

“Although the range of issues we are investigating is complex, the fundamentals are simple,” said chief executive Paul Philip. “The public expect solicitors to behave ethically. They must act independently and do the right thing in the interests of justice.”

Both the SRA and the Bar Standards Board do not plan to take any regulatory action until the inquiry has concluded. 

Hearings are due to conclude by the end of September and the inquiry’s chair, retired High Court judge Sir Wyn Lewis Williams, has said he will produce his final report “as soon as is reasonably practicable following the completion of the evidence gathering”.

The next set of public hearings are due to begin on 9 April and run until 31 July, with 68 witnesses slated to give oral evidence. The hearings will examine the Post Office’s response to SPMs’ campaign for justice, including the group litigation, as well as governance issues such as the “monitoring of Horizon” and whistleblowing.

Among the witnesses are two former general counsel – Susan Crichton, who stepped down in 2013, and interim GC Chris Aujard, who left in 2015 – and the current incumbent, Ben Foat. Womble Bond Dickinson partner Andrew Parsons, who acted for the Post Office in the group litigation, is also due to appear. 

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