• Wednesday, July 24, 2024

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Lawyer advised Post Office to ‘avoid apologising’, inquiry hears

External counsel recommended in 2013 that the Post Office should correct accounting errors in its Horizon system without admitting culpability

A Post Office van parked outside the venue for the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry at Aldwych House on January 11, 2024 in London, England. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

By: Pramod Thomas

A LAWYER who advised the Post Office for more than seven years had suggested that issuing apologies to operators would be similar to acknowledging some level of fault, a public inquiry has heard.

Andrew Parsons, a partner at the law firm Womble Bond Dickinson, in 2013 reviewed drafts of letters intended for several branch operators who had identified financial discrepancies in their accounts, as displayed by the Horizon IT system, discrepancies which the Post Office had agreed to rectify, the Guardian reported.

In an email sent to Post Office executives in June 2013, Parsons wrote: “I don’t think we should apologise in the letters. I know this sounds harsh but in apologising we are admitting some degree of culpability. I think we should maintain a more cold, procedural approach to correcting what is effectively an accounting irregularity.”

On Thursday (13), Julian Blake, counsel to the inquiry, asked Parsons about the legal implications of making an apology.

“Sometimes apologies can be interpreted as admissions. I think it’s pretty common for lawyers to consider whether an apology is appropriate. In my view, it leads people to believe there was an admission of legal fault when in fact the Post Office’s stance was that while there was a problem, it had been corrected,” he was quoted as saying.

Parsons was also questioned about an email from 2016 in which his law firm advised the Post Office to “try and suppress” disclosure of a key document “for as long as possible.”

At that time, lawyers representing branch operators, led by Alan Bates, were demanding the Post Office disclose its investigation guidelines in the early stages of their high court battle, which was later dramatised by ITV.

The email, sent in October 2016 by a junior lawyer at Womble Bond Dickinson, had been reviewed by Parsons. He added a paragraph mentioning “ultimately withholding a key document.”

His addition read, “For now we’ll do what we can to avoid disclosure of these guidelines and try to do so in a way that looks legitimate. However, we are ultimately withholding a key document and this may attract some criticism… we’ll adopt this approach until such time as we sense the criticism is becoming serious.”

Parsons admitted to the inquiry that it was a “very poorly worded email and I regret sending it.”

He explained that the junior solicitor had sent him a draft that did not include this final paragraph, and he added it to clarify the actions required from Post Office on this matter.

He justified the approach by citing “substantive legitimate reasons for resisting disclosure of the investigation guidelines at this early stage.”

Parsons was further questioned about communications between himself and Rodric Williams, an internal Post Office lawyer, regarding potential responses to a 2015 BBC Panorama episode that raised concerns about the Horizon IT system.

The programme highlighted the cases of convicted post office operators Noel Thomas, Seema Misra and Jo Hamilton, who were all acquitted in 2021.

At that time, Parsons had written that his preferred strategy was for the Post Office to do nothing and wait for the Criminal Cases Review Commission’s decision on potential miscarriages of justice. Alternatively, the Post Office could go on “full attack.”

In an email read to the inquiry, Parsons suggested the Post Office could “start attacking the postmasters’ credibility by calling out Thomas, Misra, and Hamilton as the liars and criminals that they are.”

“On reflection, that language is too strong,” he said during the inquiry.

Separately, on Thursday, a Scottish law that will automatically exonerate Scots wrongly convicted as part of the Post Office Horizon scandal received royal assent and will come into effect on Friday (14).

The inquiry is investigating how the Post Office pursued and prosecuted hundreds of individuals for alleged financial discrepancies in their branch accounts over more than a decade. It has since been revealed that these issues were due to bugs in the Horizon IT system, managed by the state-owned entity.

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