The Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) has agreed to meet the former judge heading up the inquiry into the Post Office scandal that ruined the lives of hundreds of subpostmasters.
In 2020, after a the non-statutory inquiry into the scandal was set up, chaired by Wyn Williams, the JFSA said it would not cooperate unless there were substantial changes to the terms of reference. It wanted the inquiry to be on a statutory footing, so witnesses could be called to give evidence under oath and documentation could be demanded.
After the government this week announced the inquiry was being made statutory, the JFSA agreed to meet Williams to discuss his approach and what the inquiry will now encompass.
The Post Office Horizon Scandal saw subpostmasters blamed for unexplained accounting shortfalls which were caused by errors in the Horizon accounting system they use in branches. Hundreds were prosecuted and some sent to prison. Paying back supposed losses left families financially ruined and destroyed many lives.
Subpostmasters always believed the Horizon computer system was to blame for the shortfalls, but the Post Office always denied this despite knowing about software bugs. After a decade of campaigning and two High Court trials, the JFSA was proved right in its assertions that the Horizon computer system was to blame for the unexplained accounting shortfalls.
A Computer Weekly investigation in 2009 revealed the stories of subpostmasters who suffered losses they said were due to errors in the retail and accounting software they use in branches.
The Post Office denied this, and 736 subpostmasters were prosecuted for theft and false accounting, with some being sent to prison, in what has become one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in UK history (see timeline below).
Alan Bates, the former subpostmaster who set up the JFSA in 2009, wrote in an email to its members: “So now there is to be a Statutory Inquiry, something we were after – the question is, are we going to engage with it?
“At the moment, most of the statements being issued just suggest there will be powers to make witnesses appear and for requested documents to be provided. But, in reality, a Statutory Inquiry can do so much more, and it is really down to the judge leading the inquiry to set out how he sees the inquiry progressing and what ground he wants to cover,” added Bates.
He said he has agreed to a meeting with former judge Wyn Williams.
The government said its decision to put the inquiry on a statutory footing came after the Court of Appeal overturned the criminal convictions of 39 former subpostmasters on April 23. It was facing a judicial review of its previous inquiry, with the JFSA about to take the government to court seeking one.
“Now it is to be relaunched as a Statutory Inquiry, something we were pressing for to the extent that BEIS knew that next week we were to submit an application for Judicial Review in order to halt the current ‘whitewash’ inquiry and establish a Statutory Inquiry,” Bates told JFSA members. “In fact, BEIS already had all our paperwork, including the legal argument that had been prepared for the court.”
Following the announcement that the inquiry was to become statutory, Bates met Paul Scully, the minister responsible for the Post Office in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).
Bates said: “In summary, [Scully’s] answers were that it was very much down to Wyn Williams to decide the parameters and direction of the inquiry, and so I agreed that we would meet with [Williams] to clarify how he intends to take the inquiry forward before making a final decision about engaging with it.
“They say the ‘devil is in the detail’ and that’s what we need to see now. We’ve learnt the hard way that you don’t take the word of the Post Office or BEIS, but you can usually rely on the judiciary.”
Second Sight, the forensic accounting firm that carried out extensive examination of the Horizon system, revealing many bugs, also refused to engage with the previous non-statutory inquiry.
Managing director Ron Warmington said that since the changes to the inquiry, Second Sight would in principle be willing to support it. “We had a red line due to limited scope which seems now to have been erased, so we would be delighted to support it,” he added.