Jason Beer QC and Catriona Hodge appointed Counsel to the Inquiry in new public inquiry
On 19th May 2021 the Government announced that with effect from 1st June 2021 the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry would be a statutory inquiry held under the provisions of the Inquiries Act 2005.
Horizon is an electronic point of sale and accounting system, introduced in 2000 (following a pilot in 1999), and used by sub-postmasters in branch offices as part of the postal service operated by Post Office Ltd (“POL”). A series of shortfalls and discrepancies in branch accounts was noticed soon after the introduction of Horizon. Sub-postmasters suggested that this was caused by bugs, errors and defects in the system which caused it to overstate the amount of cash or stock which should be held at a particular time, thereby causing an apparent and unexplained shortfall in branch accounts. By contrast, POL treated the shortfall as having been caused by dishonesty, or at best carelessness, on the part of the sub-postmasters.
Acting as a private prosecutor, POL brought criminal proceedings against sub-postmasters, and many of them were convicted of crimes of dishonesty. Six convictions were quashed on appeal to the Crown Court in December 2020 and the Court of Appeal quashed a further thirty-nine convictions in April 2021: see here.
Civil proceedings, relating amongst other things to deficiencies in the Horizon system, were commenced by hundreds of former POL employees. A Group Litigation Order was made. The proceedings were heard by Fraser J, who delivered a number of detailed judgments, in the course of which he made adverse findings about the Horizon system, principal amongst which were the “Common Issues Judgment” (see here) and the “Horizon Issues Judgment” (see here).
The Inquiry’s new Terms of Reference require it to: Draw on the judgments set out above, consider all other relevant evidence, listen to those that have been affected, understand what went wrong, and assess whether lessons have been learned and whether concrete changes have taken place, or are underway, at POL.
The Inquiry plans to begin its oral hearings in early 2022.