A Post Office Inquiry? What would it mean?
This was first published on 18 May 2021 and updated on 20 May 2021.
The acquittal recently of a group of former sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses by the Court of Appeal has been called ‘the UK’s most widespread miscarriage of justice’. Their prosecution by the Post Office came about because of financial irregularities found by the Horizon computer system. A system that was itself flawed.
The government launched an inquiry in December 2020 to:
understand what went wrong, assess whether lessons have been learned and that concrete changes have taken place, or are underway, at Post Office Ltd.
But the inquiry is non-statutory which means that, whilst it has flexibility over how it operates, participation in the process is voluntary and the inquiry itself lacks the powers provided in the Inquiries Act 2005 – most notably the power to compel the production of documents and other relevant evidence and to require witnesses to give evidence under oath.
Since the Court of Appeal decision, calls for a statutory inquiry have been growing louder. Campaigners, politicians, and the media have all called for more powers for the inquiry. There has even been the threat of a judicial review. Recent reports suggesting that the government will announce a statutory appeal have now been proved to be right.
What the change means
The inquiry will be converted into a statutory inquiry as of 1 June 2021, to be conducted under the Inquiries Act 2005. The Act will govern all aspects of the inquiry including, in particular, the taking of witness evidence and the delivery of recommendations. It will take place in public and have the power to compel witness testimony and documentary evidence – from individuals and organisations.
Rather than starting all over again, the government proposes that the current inquiry should simply continue, led by its Chair, the retired High Court judge, Sir Wyn Williams, albeit with its new enhanced status.
In announcing this news, the government has recognised the need to provide greater scrutiny of what has gone on, and we anticipate the inquiry will now demand documents from the Post Office, government departments and those involved in all aspects of the Horizon computer system, including, of course, its supplier Fujitsu.
In another mark of the greater seriousness with which this troubling episode is being treated, the terms of reference for the inquiry have been amended, and the aim now is for the inquiry to present its report by the Autumn of 2022, rather than the Summer of this year, as had originally been required.
As with all inquiries of this sort, the focus will be on learning lessons, but there is a danger that the shift in status to a statutory inquiry will see louder and louder calls for the naming, blaming and shaming of those involved in any failures identified.
Outcome of the inquiry
The government has responded to the significant pressure on it by giving the inquiry the powers many were seeking.
According to the Institute for government, ‘between 1990 and 2017, 46 inquiries made 2,791 recommendations’. There is no doubt that some of these recommendations have led to significant change, for example, the acceptance of the existence of institutional racism following the MacPherson (Stephen Lawrence) Inquiry.
Of course, a public inquiry has no power to determine civil or criminal liability and it is left up to the government to decide to what extent recommendations should be implemented.
However, the Post Office, Fujitsu, government departments and many individuals will rightly fear the outcome of this inquiry. They will all have to re-consider how to engage with the process and prepare very differently for it.
For the victims of the injustice, their families, and supporters, they will now believe they have a better chance of getting at the truth behind what really happened.
How BDB Pitmans can help
We have extensive experience of providing the secretariat to and representing both individuals and organisations at public inquiries. Our previous experience includes work on the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, the Hutton Inquiry, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), the Infected Blood Inquiry, the Forde Inquiry, and others.
Our services also include a specialist communications and reputation management team who can assist on all aspects of media and stakeholder engagement.
For more information about our expertise, contact a member of our specialist public law team.