Paul Harris vs The Post Office – lawyer on the frontline of the fight for justice

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Paul Harris vs The Post Office – lawyer on the frontline of the fight for justice

Alex Galbinski speaks to a lawyer who represented wrongly convicted sub-postmasters whose stories are in the spotlight after the airing of ITV's four-part drama

Alex Galbinski is a Jewish News journalist

Pic: ITV
Pic: ITV

One of the lawyers who was involved in the cases of four sub-postmasters whose fraud convictions were quashed has called it “obscene” that it took a televised drama to spur on ministers and the Post Office to act to speed up their compensation.

Paul Harris, a senior partner at London firm Edward Fail, Bradshaw & Waterson, represented four of the 39 sub-postmasters who were cleared by the Court of Appeal in 2021 after having been prosecuted by the Post Office for fraud, theft and false accounting. The case has been called the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history.

The scandal was dramatised by the ITV in a series screened earlier this month: Mr Bates vs The Post Office. Alan Bates was a Post Office worker who led a group of 555 sub-postmasters in launching legal action against the company in 2017.

The criminal defence solicitor told Jewish News: “I’m really pleased about the effect that [the series] had, but it is slightly obscene that this is what it took for the government to take action when all of the material in the drama was in the public domain.”

He believes the Post Office is most at fault, saying: “They have made apologies, but it is all so late so perhaps [they should] acknowledge they are not fit to bring private prosecutions.”

Criminal defence lawyer Paul Harris

The Criminal Cases Review Commission, which investigates alleged miscarriages of justice, had referred the cases of 42 former postmasters to the Appeal Court following a landmark case at the High Court in 2019.

In 1999, the Post Office introduced Horizon, an accounting system developed by Fujitsu, to record transactions and stocktaking. But, almost immediately, sub-postmasters and other staff complained about problems with shortfalls in their branches. Rather than looking into their concerns, between 2000 and 2014 the Post Office prosecuted 736 sub-postmasters.

Some people challenged the Horizon evidence but were convicted and jailed. As the evidence was presumed by the court to be reliable, others pleaded guilty (some were advised to do so to avoid prison).

Having been threatened with dismissal, many used their own money or borrowed heavily to plug the shortfalls, which ran into thousands of pounds.

Some went bankrupt. Marriages broke down. People suffered ill health; some died with their convictions extant. At least one sub-postmaster killed himself.

“For the Post Office, this was about maintaining their brand and reputation at the cost in real terms of many people’s lives, the rights of the individual, the voice of the many individuals was just not heard,” Harris says. Speaking at the time of the Court of Appeal’s ruling, Harris said he felt justice would be completed when all of the sub-postmasters were properly compensated for their losses and the damage done to their lives. This has still not happened in many cases.

“The sub-postmasters all worked at the centre of their community where everybody knew their name. Their reputations were entirely destroyed and it was totally unnecessary,” he says. “It didn’t just destroy the individuals, it destroyed their families as well, so the human cost was absolutely massive.”

On the subject of the TV drama, Harris explains that none of its material was news. “It had been widely reported in a newspapers and, of course, there is both the damning civil judgment in 2019 and the damning Court of Appeal judgment in 2021. But now the government has suddenly deemed this urgent enough to take steps to expedite the appeal process.

“They are passing legislation so all postmasters convicted following Post Office prosecutions… will have their convictions removed and be entitled to compensation.”

The Post Office pursued prosecutions for years, spending huge sums on legal fees, despite sub-postmasters’ many calls to its helpline about the Horizon software, which Harris says the corporation “knew was flawed pretty much from the get-go”.

At the time of the Appeal judgment, Harris said: “The more you read about it, the more you are absolutely shocked at the extent to which it went to conceal problems. This is a state-owned, government corporation, so you would not expect this level of dishonesty.”

The Post Office spent £32 million trying to deny fault in Horizon and, as of 1 December 2023, £138m has been paid to 2,700 claimants across three schemes.

After the 2021 verdict, Paula Vennells, its chief executive from 2012 to 2019 and an ordained priest, resigned from her church duties and from her two non-executive retailer roles. Since the drama, she has said she will return her CBE. “She should have done it sooner,” says Harris, “but at least she has seen sense… the public outcry left her with no choice.”

Harris, who has represented Girls Aloud star Cheryl Tweedy, former Pakistani cricket captain Salman Butt and worked on one of the Hillsborough cases, says he has not seen anything like this case in 30 years as a criminal defence lawyer. “The judgment was very damning by the Court of Appeal. It’s nothing short of evil what happened to these people. Their lives were taken away from them.”

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