An affront to our conscience

January 1 2024

This evening there is the first episode of a four part drama – Mr Bates vs The Post Office. It is a must see, if only in the hope that it will bring home to a wider public the scale and human impact of what has rightly been called the worst miscarriage of justice in English legal history. It is to be hoped that such public interest might put pressure on politicians to put right – and without further delay – matters which are – or should be – an affront to the conscience of the British state.

It is shaming to see from the evidence given during the statutory public inquiry headed by Sir Wyn Williams how so many from my own profession behaved so unprofessionally, incompetently and potentially worse, both during the events which are the subject of the Inquiry and during the Inquiry itself.

If there is one thing to learn from it, it should be a reminder that practising law or carrying out investigations without any understanding of the ethical underpinning of one’s work and the necessity of ensuring that this informs everything you do is wrong. This is not what true professionalism requires. The question is never “Can I do this?“. But “Should I?“.

It is correct to say that this is the worst miscarriage of justice. But this description underplays the nature of the scandal. In reality, this is not just a scandal about the Post Office exploiting some flawed accounting software.

  • It is a scandal about the development of flawed hardware and software systems, a flawed governmental and corporate procurement process and a flawed adoption and rolling out process.
  • It is a scandal about how the Post Office, a state owned body with unlimited resources and its own prosecution service, operated with no effective corporate governance or Ministerial control or supervision and exploited flawed software, flawed contracts and the civil and criminal legal systems to extort money it was not owed from subpostmasters.
  • It is a scandal about how the legal system failed – and continues to fail – to understand technical evidence.
  • It is a scandal about how the legal system has failed for far too long those accused and convicted of crimes which did not happen. As the government’s own Compensation Advisory Board has said: “the justice system itself is called into question in the current circumstances.
  • It is a scandal about a failure of Parliamentary and Ministerial governance.
  • It is a scandal about how the state fails to put right its mistakes and compensate those harmed by those mistakes.

Ultimately, it is a story about the abuse of power.

There are so many aspects to it that it can be hard to get your head round all of it. But these articles are an attempt to summarise some of the key issues. A work-in-progress, obviously. But I hope helpful.

1. An overview

2. The Business Secretary’s role

3. Compensation

4. Revelations from the Williams Inquiry

5. Ministerial and corporate governance of the Post Offiice

6. The reliability of computer evidence and how the Law Commission got this wrong

7. What Parliament did and did not do

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