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Access To Justice: How the Post Office Scandal Shows that 'Trial By Public Inquiry' is Unsustainable

Updated: Oct 27, 2023


Image Source: BBC


The details of the Post Office scandal are eye-watering. Between 1999 and 2015, over 700 sub-postmasters (SPMs – Post Office branch managers) were prosecuted for offences including theft, fraud, and false accounting. The true figure may be even higher. It is now acknowledged that the Post Office’s accounting system, developed by Fujitsu, was deeply flawed and produced frequent accounting errors. How such a miscarriage of justice could have ever happened is very troubling. In this piece, I will explain why individuals should all be very fearful about what the scandal says about our rights in the justice system. I will consider why it has been so difficult for the SPMs to get justice. I will conclude by explaining what should be done to ensure that this never happens again.


How could such a miscarriage of justice have ever happened? English criminal law is supposed to be full of safeguards that protect innocent people. The 18th century legal scholar William Blackstone famously declared that “[i]t is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” This statement is a cornerstone of English legal thinking. So how did the justice system get it so wrong here? In his book on the scandal, Nick Wallis suggested that a number of factors were to blame. These included excessive confidence in the IT system as well as defendants pleading guilty to lesser offences in order to avoid high jail time. It is also alleged that the Post Office knowingly pursued convictions despite knowing that Horizon was faulty. These explanations may be true but they avoid the real reason: that the English criminal justice system is not fit for purpose.


This is a bold claim, so deserves some justification. For the criminal justice system to be seen as intact, it should be capable of spotting and addressing its own mistakes. This did not happen for the SPMs. It was not the justice system which protected the falsely-convicted. Instead, it was the determined work of the SPMs and a handful of journalists, Rebecca Thomson notably the first among them. James Arbuthnot MP also deserves credit for raising the plight of the SPMs in Parliament. So, the failings of criminal law were brought out into the open by journalists, campaigners, and MPs. Only after all of this was a public inquiry finally launched in 2021. It took until September this year for the Government to announce compensation of £600,000 for any SPM whose conviction relied on Horizon and has been overturned. It should have never taken all of this. The scandal should never have got to the point where the sheer weight of the injustice assumed a gravity of its own.


This should be a source of deep concern for everyone. It demonstrates how miscarriages of justice on a huge scale can happen. On the face of it, it should have been inevitable that a scandal involving so many individuals and such a high-profile company would one day be found out. Yet it took so long. Many SPMs died before getting justice. For individual victims of miscarriages of justice, the picture looks bleak. There are not enough journalists to fix every mistake of the criminal justice system and a public inquiry is an exceptional, costly measure that is only suitable for the biggest cases. Therefore, it is not good enough for society to wait until the failings of the criminal justice system to pile high enough for a public inquiry to be brought. We should all be extremely fearful that a miscarriage of justice could happen to us. Rarely will it affect so many other individuals that it will receive such national attention.


What is the solution? Wallis noted an important fact about some of the SPM prosecutions that may answer this. For some SPMs who had the ability to fund high-quality, combative legal representation, they fought back hard against the Post Office’s prosecutions. These few SPMs successfully deterred the efforts to wrongly prosecute them. An important lesson can be learned from this; if SPMs had access to anything like the legal funding that they have at the public inquiry now, then there may have never been a Post Office scandal. However, Government funding for criminal legal aid is even worse today than it was during the period of the wrongful convictions. Statista reports that criminal legal aid fell from £1.4 billion in 2010/11 to £0.82 billion in 2021/22. This trend makes bad economic sense (public inquiries are astronomically expensive: the Post Office’s legal bill alone is estimated to be £177 million) as well as being catastrophic for individual rights.


This analysis gives conclusive support to Lord Reed’s statement in R(UNISON) v Lord Chancellor that “[t]he constitutional right of access to the courts is inherent in the rule of law.” Access to justice is a right that enables individuals to unlock all of their other rights. If individuals do not have access to fair legal representation, then the justice system ceases to have any positive function. Having a bad justice system is no better than having none at all. Unless as a society we are willing to ensure that every defendant has proper representation, we may as well flip a coin to decide if they are guilty or not. It would at least end the pretence of justice.


In 1983, Neil Kinnock's famous speech issued four stark warnings to voters: not to be ordinary, not to be young, not to fall ill, and not to grow old. If drastic action is not taken to fix our justice system, then I would add another: I would warn you not to ever place your faith in the English justice system.


Author: Ben Sheridan


Bibliography


Blackstone, W. (1765). Commentaries on the laws of England. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Ratcliffe, S. (2016). Oxford Essential Quotations (4th Edition ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Statista. (2023, October 11). Resource department expenditure limit (RDEL) of criminal and civil legal aid in England and Wales from 2005/06 to 2021/22. Retrieved from Statista: https://www.statista.com/statistics/1098628/legal-aid-spending-in-england-and-wales/

Sweney, M. (2023, September 18). Post Office: Horizon scandal victims to receive £600,000 compensation each. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2023/sep/18/post-office-horizon-scandal-victims-compensation

UK Government. (2023, September 18). Government announces £600,000 of new compensation for every wrongfully convicted Postmaster. Retrieved from GOV.UK: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-announces-600000-of-new-compensation-for-every-wrongfully-convicted-postmaster

Wallis, N. (2021). The Great Post Office Scandal (1st Edition ed.). Bath Publishing.

[2017] UKSC 51

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