The Past Is Not Another Country

May 5 2024


9 September 2013: there is a meeting between Brian Altman KC and the Post Office’s in-house and external lawyers. A key witness, Gareth Jenkins of Fujitsu, who gave oral evidence at Seema Misra’s 2010 trial, was tainted. Following advice from Simon Clarke, a barrister with Cartwright King, the Post Office had asked them to review its prosecutions since 2010. Its General Counsel, Susan Crichton, had agreed to this as the cut off date even though it excluded the Misra case. What should the Post Office do, however, if she came forward? As recorded by another Cartwright King lawyer, Martin Smith, nothing. The Post Office did not want to give her “a ticket to the Court of Appeal.”

It is worth noting what this amounted to:

  • The Post Office and its lawyers knew its key witness was tainted.
  • They knew he had given evidence at a trial leading to the conviction of a subpostmistress.
  • They knew that proactive disclosure of this would potentially allow that subpostmistress to appeal.
  • They knew that this risked undermining other prosecutions. 
  • They decided to do nothing.

Why? The issue has been discussed and analysed primarily in terms of a failure to understand a prosecutor’s disclosure obligations. But the underlying reason for the deliberate inaction was because the Post Office could not bring itself to face the consequences of what it had uncovered. It did not like where this might lead. So it chose not to go down that road.

Working back from the conclusion you want, arranging the facts to fit that conclusion and ignoring, suppressing and, if necessary, lying about facts that don’t fit has been the modus operandi of the Post Office throughout. 

It is easy to blame this on their second and third-rate lawyers and managers. The in-house lawyers were not criminal law specialists and never seemingly bothered to find out anything about the topic despite working for – or being GCs (and being paid accordingly) of – an organisation which was a prosecutor.  Some did not even know – apparently – what the criminal standard of proof was (a topic usually learnt by law students in their first term). Nor did they know that ignorance of the law is no excuse, especially for lawyers. Their external advisers knew nothing about prosecutions (according to Martin Smith) despite being paid to do precisely that work. They seem also to have missed the lessons on conflicts of interest.

But turning away from an unpleasant conclusion is not confined to inadequate lawyers. It was Lord Denning, an eminent judge, who in 1979 in a civil case brought by the Birmingham Six against police officers for how they had been treated while in custody, said the following:

Just consider the course of events if this action is allowed to proceed to trial. If the six men fail it will mean much time and money will have been expended to no good purpose. If the six men win, it will mean that the police are guilty of perjury, that they are guilty of violence and threats, that the confessions were invented and improperly admitted in evidence and the convictions were erroneous. This is such an appalling vista that every sensible person in the land would say that it cannot be right that these actions should go any further.”

It is considerably more eloquently expressed than emails from senior Post Office personnel. But the sentiments are the same. Spending money on checking whether convictions are safe and lawful is a waste of money. A bad result for those put under scrutiny is an “appalling vista”. It would harm their “brand” and “reputation”. Better not to look than find out that people have perjured themselves or coerced confessions out of the innocent. This precisely described the Post Office’s playbook.   

Did the Post Office’s lawyers realise they were following in such eminent footsteps? Probably not. 1979 is a very long time ago and the history of miscarriages of justice is not a topic much taught to aspiring or practising lawyers. It should be. It is much easier to follow rules substantively, to comply with their spirit if you understand what they are trying to achieve. What seems to be missing from the many lawyer witnesses we have seen so far, is an understanding of what these rules are for and why they exist. 

Disclosure by the prosecution is essential to making sure that trials are fair, that there is some equality of arms between a powerful state and individuals. It is even more essential when computer evidence is deemed true unless the individual on trial can prove otherwise. Disclosure failures are at the heart of virtually all miscarriages of justice, as retired judge Sir Anthony Hooper said with some feeling at the end of his evidence to the Williams Inquiry. The Irish cases in the 1970’s are a prime example but there have been many since – the most recent the Andy Malkinson case. 

As for legal privilege, it is not some sort of fairy dust lawyers have in their pocket to sprinkle over information which their clients want hidden. It exists to give clients the space and freedom to get full and frank advice. It exists so that lawyers can speak truth to power. It is to enable clients – faced with difficult issues – to get the advice needed to help resolve those problems. Not hide them.

There are some brutal realities for the legal profession from this inquiry. In many miscarriages of justice, there will have been some failings by lawyers. But they are not usually the focus, the problems often arising from failures by the police, forensic scientists or expert witnesses. Not all result in public inquiries and rarely is legal privilege waived. 

This time – with privilege waived – the veil has been lifted. What we are seeing is how lawyers have been at the heart of what has gone wrong. We are seeing how they understand (often misunderstand), use and operate the rules and their skills to enable and prolong injustice. We are seeing how remarkably passive, incurious and detached from the ethical underpinnings of their role they are. It is not a pretty sight. Are they just a few rotten apples? 

There are more senior, independent lawyers yet to give evidence. What will they add to this picture?


Photo by Melinda Gimpel on Unsplash

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