Why the Post Office case will not go away – and the wider implications of the case

26th April 2021

Few appeal cases keep on being news a few days after the judgment has been handed down.

The parties, of course, will keep an interest as they decide what, if anything, to do next; lawyers will consider any legal or procedural point of wide import; specialists and experts will take due notice of any significant development.

But general news value of an appeal decision diminishes rapidly, and soon it will be as old news as a football result.

But the Post Office appeal case has been different.

If anything, many people – this blogger included – are taking more of an interest in what happened.

In part this is because of the detailed judgments – and so some relentless investigative journalism.

The more one looks at the case the more worrying the case becomes.

All sorts of professionals – not just the senior managers – appear to have been caught up in the attempt to oppose the exposure of what happened.

And as the eminent blogger on law and legal ethics Richard Moorhead asks over at his blog: where were the lawyers?

Reading carefully this detailed Private Eye piece on the scandal, there are many moments where anyone with an interest in litigation will gasp. 

The easy way of addressing the question of what were the lawyers doing is to aver that lawyers are not decision-makers, they only advise and so on.

But that old stand-by of an excuse does not quite work with issues, such as disclosure of documents and duties to the court, where the decision-making is done by lawyers rather than clients.

Something very wrong happened, and for a long period, and because of the decisions made of many people.

And the wider question becomes: where else are such commercial-legal scandals and cover-ups where there has not been a success in bringing it to light?

Perhaps not ones where there have been a mass of prosecutions, but where there has been co-ordinated attempts to prevent transparency, scrutiny and accountability.


If you value this free-to-read and independent legal and policy commentary please do support through the Paypal box above, or become a Patreon subscriber.

Each post takes time, effort, and opportunity cost.

Suggested donation of any amount as a one-off, or of £4.50 upwards on a monthly profile.

This law and policy blog provides a daily post commenting on and contextualising topical law and policy matters – each post is usually published at about 9.30am UK time – though some special posts are published later.


You can also subscribe for each post to be sent by email at the subscription box above (on an internet browser) or on a pulldown list (on mobile).


Comments Policy

This blog enjoys a high standard of comments, many of which are better and more interesting than the posts.

Comments are welcome, but they are pre-moderated.

Comments will not be published if irksome.

9 thoughts on “Why the Post Office case will not go away – and the wider implications of the case”

  1. I wonder, is there an “acceptable” rate of false positives, that is convictions that are subsequently overturned?

    Are there any international comparisons? Do the rates of false positives differ between countries with common law and countries with civil law?

    I ask because I wonder if there is a systemic problem in an adversarial process, where “getting at the truth” doesn’t have the importance it seems to have elsewhere in an inquisitorial system. Such systems do have an independent assessor or “examining magistrate” involved from the beginning.

    1. There is no “acceptable” rate of false positives in this scenario. We should not just shrug and move on when innocent people are convicted for a criminal offence they did not commit.

      The criminal justice system should be set up to try to ensure that, so far as reasonably possible, erroneous convictions do not happen. The rules such as disclosure of evidence, recording of interviews, right to silence, right to legal representation, presumption of innocence, etc, – should be set up to try to minimise the risk that an innocent individual is overwhelmed by the resources of the state, and rights of appeal are intended to try to resolve any problems that do arise.

      But that does not mean it won’t happen, and it is regrettable each time. As with COVID, following an elimination strategy (aiming to cut cases to zero) does not mean there will be no cases. It just means you put more resources and time and attention into cutting cases so far as reasonably possible, rather than just accepting that there will be some.

      At the same time, it is also not acceptable that, for example, a very small percentage of rape or sexual assault complaints result in court cases, and more generally that it takes so long for criminal cases to reach court. Mainly due to lack of resources.

      Justice delayed is justice denied, for both the complainant and the accused, and for society more generally.

      1. Wrong or unsafe convictions, the false positives get a lot of media attention (rightly so), but how common are they? Is this a big problem? I’ve never seen any statistics about how many Crown Court convictions are overturned.

        Of course, there should be no false positives*, but realistically this is unlikely to be achieved unless we accept an even greater number of false negatives, that is cases where the guilty walk free. While it’s often said that it’s preferable for the guilty to walk away rather then the innocent to be condemned, this is surely a too simplistic concept today.

        The emphasis should be on reaching the correct conclusion. Part of the problem with this is “funding” meaning that evidence cannot be properly scrutinised. I’m wondering if there are inherent structural problems with the processes of common law that need to be addressed.

        * I’m reminded of a case a while back where an accused man said he was in a certain location and therefore could not have committed the crime. The CCTV of the area was reviewed before the trial, he was not seen on it; the barristers in the case and the judge didn’t see him. But a juror did, and once this was pointed out, the others could see the man. This sort of “human error” — neither an error of commission nor one of ommission — is very difficult to eradicate, though in this particular case face recognition technology might assist.

        1. The emphasis of the trier of fact (magistrate or jury) is on determining whether there is sufficient admissible evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of the offence as charged. We accept that there may be cases where a person may have done it, but in the absence of sufficient evidence, they are not convicted. Even nowadays, we have no window on men’s souls, to discern the guilty from the innocent. Just the evidence, and inferences therefrom.

          Human error occurs all the time, not least because an individual’s memory is very malleable, and a witness who is doing their best to tell the truth might be mistaken.

          I agree, it would be interesting to see some statistics and comparison with say France. As I understand it, examining magistrates direct a small minority of criminal investigations, typically only the most serious cases, but their role is largely to gather evidence and determine if there is a case to answer, in much the same manner as the police in most other cases there (or in England). Cases that go to trial are referred to a a public prosecutor (compare the CPS) and the trials are conducted before a trial judge (no jury) in an adversarial manner.

          Would you prefer to be tried by a jury, or by one or more judges?

          1. We are in danger of outstaying our welcome here.

            The Rules of Evidence were changed after the Sally Clark case so that uncorroborated evidence from an expert was no longer sufficient for a conviction. This seems to be the position in Scotland, where “confirmation” is necessary for a conviction. Here in NI we have had Diplock Courts and “supergrass” trials, both of which while perhaps “necessary” are really legally dubious.

            I understood that in France there is a panel of judges with a number of “assessors” who played a role similar to a jury; I am open to correction on this point.

            I stand by my original thought; are there structural problems with common law and evidence such as to make false positives more common? And yes, some data and statistics, please.

          2. Fwiw, I view Roy Meadow as one of the worse people in public life, and it was a grave injustice that he escaped permanent striking off by way a technicality. He is a far greater monster than any of the innocent people he, in effect, forced into prison following the tragedies they had already suffered. Loathsome almost beyond words.

  2. A few curiosities about this story. The overall amount of money seems pretty small, most companies would ‘let people go’ and not waste time on a criminal prosecution. What was the real motivation – fear of redundancy? Prosecution looks like a bad idea that will cost plenty.

    Ms Vennells seems somewhat pallid person, not the usual CEO type. Why was she given the job. The makeup of the Post Office board seems a somewhat straggling group of people, who was really in charge? Was whoever was really in charge looking for a patsy. Or someone who would not ask awkward questions. Perhaps a hang over from having been a government department.

    Then we get to the lawyers. One at least asked questions but was the Post Office seen as a ‘good account’ with plenty of fees? All very strange.

  3. Is there something different / peculiar about the PO which has given or gave it powers to prosecute with less (eg CPS) oversight or avoidance of some legal niceties which would have helped ensure full disclosure from the PO itself?

    Would such a status have shielded Fujitsu which, by the way, I find impossible to believe was unaware of the flaws in its software or the resulting prosecutions?

    Having worked in the communication & IT sectors since the 70s, I would tend to view this entire fiasco as criminal negligence on the part of the supplier & its obtuse customer.

    Prior to the formation of BT the PO held a sort of mythical status as a keeper of state secrets (top secret communication lines etc) which demanded employees & contractors “sign” the Official Secrets Act and by dint of this was said to be capable of initiating prosecutions on its own without recourse to usual channels such as police etc. Is this broadly correct or just nonsense?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.