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Post Office investigators ‘viewed postmasters as enemies’

Image source, fake images

  • Author, Tom Espiner
  • Role, BBC business reporter

Post Office investigators viewed subpostmasters as “enemies,” according to a 2014 draft report by forensic accountants.

This was part of an “adversarial” approach by the company at the time, a former senior Post Office lawyer admitted at an inquiry into the Horizon IT scandal.

The Post Office security team also failed to link several reports from deputy postmasters about failures in accounting software, according to the report.

Chris Aujard, a former prominent lawyer for the group, was asked why he did not act on the findings.

Between 1999 and 2015, the Post Office prosecuted hundreds of subpostmasters for crimes such as theft and false accounting based on faulty Horizon software.

On Thursday, the long-running inquiry into the scandal was shown the draft report by Ron Warmington of accounting firm Second Sight, which raised serious concerns about the Post Office’s investigations into subpostmasters.

He said investigators “often appear to have paid scant attention” to subpostmasters telling them they were innocent of fraud or pointing out anomalies in transactions.

“They (researchers) appear to have shown little or no willingness to establish the underlying cause of any given deficit,” the report says.

This seemed to arise from a desire to “recover the money” from subpostmasters, “knowing that a false accounting conviction will provide a relatively inexpensive path to that goal,” he said.

“The overwhelming impression gained from reviewing the transcripts of the investigative interviews is that the deputy postmaster was viewed as an enemy of business,” the report added.

The investigative team seemed to assume that the subpostmasters were automatically guilty, rather than “seeking the truth,” according to the report.

By not investigating what the subpostmasters were saying, or even giving them proper attention, “investigators have alienated them all,” he said.

“It is that group (subpostmasters who evidently still believe themselves not only innocent but also deceived by the Postal Service) who have truly become enemies of business,” the report adds.

Aujard, who was general counsel at the Post Office from 2013 to 2015, said that “this is a specific case of a specific piece of equipment supposedly behaving in a certain way… and I agree, this reads as if that piece of equipment was taking a contradictory approach to his research.

But he said one caveat was that the accountants who wrote the report had not interviewed the researchers themselves, but rather had written the report based on transcripts of interviews conducted by the researchers with subpostmasters.

Screenshot, Chris Aujard was General Counsel of the Post Office from 2013 to 2015.

Flora Page, a lawyer representing Horizon victims, said the 2014 draft report had raised “serious concerns about past prosecutions” and had “demanded immediate action to ensure it was correctly understood.”

He asked if immediate measures had been taken.

Aujard said: “My view at the time was that, as it was marked as a draft document and with many caveats, it was something that would have required an investigation in due course, had it been at the Post Office for longer.”

The chair of the inquiry, Sir Wyn Williams, asked what had happened to the document.

Mr Aujard responded: “What I remember is that I would have read it at the time and put it aside and that would have informed me more fully about the organization I had just joined. Beyond that, I cannot say that I took any additional action, or do not recall taking any additional action, in relation to this document.”

Separately, investigative solicitor Julian Blake questioned solicitor Martin Smith, who used to work for Post Office advisers Cartwright King, about Horizon’s disclosure of errors.

Smith testified that he had alerted Cartwright King in 2013 about alleged instructions from Post Office security chief John Scott to destroy documents related to the scandal to prevent their disclosure in court, allegations that Scott has refuted.

The questioning then moved on to a request by then Post Office general counsel Rodric Williams in May 2016 that there be no “email traffic” in discussions about a Horizon error affecting the Wimbledon branch and which could have been more than a decade old at the time. spot.

At the time, subpostmasters were taking the Post Office to court in a no-win, no-fee class action lawsuit.

Mr Williams was concerned that “this matter is subject to class action and the data may be releasable”.

Smith said he understood this was to prevent “incorrect information from entering the public domain” if there was a trail of emails containing speculation.

Towards the end of the session, Sam Stein KC, representing former subpostmasters, asked Mr Smith why he did not inform the police when he saw former Fujitsu employee Gareth Jenkins fail to disclose material to the courts.

After a long pause, Mr. Smith said, “I don’t know.”

Gareth Jenkins was the former Chief IT Architect of the Horizon system. His evidence was used in court to prosecute Seema Misra and other deputy postmasters. Mrs. Misra was sentenced to 15 months in prison while she was pregnant with her second child.

Then, when asked if Mr Smith told Fujitsu, he said: “I don’t think we told Fujitsu anything.”

“I didn’t think about that, maybe I thought the Post Office could do that since they are the ones who have the contractual relationship with Fujitsu.”

Smith admitted that he and Cartwright King colleague Simon Clarke secretly recorded a phone call with Gareth Jenkins because they were “suspicious” of him.

But when asked why it did not occur to him to tell the post office to inform Fujitsu that he believed its expert had been dishonest with the courts, he replied: “Mr Clarke and I did not discuss that.” . “We did not discuss that we were potential witnesses, we did not discuss the possibility of informing the police or Fujitsu.”