Post Office lawyer apologises for delays sharing documents with Horizon IT inquiry

Chris Jackson, Partner at Burges Salmon LLP, giving evidence to the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry.
Chris Jackson giving evidence to the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry. Credit: PA

By Elliot Turnbull, ITV News Producer and Harry Horton, Political Correspondent

A lawyer representing the Post Office has apologised for repeated delays in sharing information and documents with the Horizon IT inquiry.

Chris Jackson, a partner at law firm Burges Salmon which represents the Post Office, also revealed the Post Office has not disclosed a single WhatsApp message to the inquiry.

Friday's Post Office Inquiry focused on whether the company has been fully transparent in disclosing documents. The Post Office has been accused of failing to produce evidence to both the inquiry and during several court cases.

Between 1999 and 2015, the Post Office prosecuted hundreds of sub-postmasters and mistresses after a faulty computer system, called Horizon, made it look like money was missing.

Missed deadlines

A main theme throughout the day was the accusation that the Post Office had not handed over key evidence - this included missing deadlines to submit information.

Lead counsel to the inquiry, Jason Beer KC, described the Post Office's approach to providing access to all documents needed as "flawed". He questioned why just 2.82% of the 402,000 documents needed were shared with the inquiry.

The inquiry is looking at the historical handling of documents, but it also featured on more recent events of disclosure.

A deadline was in place for additional documents relating to Stephen Bradshaw, the former Post Office investigator. This was December 20, 2023, days before Christmas. But on December 27, there was still unsubmitted material - despite the Post Office saying the disclosure was complete on December 19. The investigator described this as "sub-optimal".

Lack of email evidence

The lead counsel described the day's topic of data as "super dry", but stressed its importance as the "lifeblood of the inquiry”.

Mr Beer asked why so many emails had not been disclosed earlier on. Late last year, inquiry testimony from key witnesses had to be delayed because the Post Office discovered that about 363,000 emails found on an old mail system had not been disclosed to the inquiry.

These reportedly came from an account that had been defunct since 2012 when the Post Office separated from Royal Mail. It used the email gateway platform Proofpoint, which connects to Microsoft Exchange to create archives of all emails from or to Post Office email addresses. In 2016, the Post Office introduced Mimecast and the Post Office said Proofpoint data was migrated into the new system.

The inquiry lawyers wanted access to these emails, as that's when they say it covers a period when the Post Office was "reacting to the unfolding scandal".

A Post Office spokesperson said "disclosure for the inquiry is a huge exercise which is extremely challenging - it involves around 70 million documents and hundreds of physical and digital repositories".

Documents duplicated The inquiry heard that on January 5, legal firm Herbert Smith Freehills - then acting for the Post Office - got in touch with inquiry lawyers telling them that additional checks regarding disclosure had uncovered 942 extra documents.

Just under 45% of these documents were found to be duplicates of already existing files. When asked why 420 documents were duplicates which the inquiry already had, Mr Jackson, representing the Post Office, replied: "I don't know."

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Post Office apologies

The day started with Mr Jackson apologising for the delay in disclosure discussed above.

He said: "The Post Office has asked me to convey its apologies for the current situation and to assure the inquiry and other core participants that it is a Post Office priority to get to a position where hearings [and planning and preparation for hearings] can take place from a stable basis with the risks of further emerging data source issues is minimised and managed so far as is practicable."

Mr Jackson added: "I am conscious that emerging problems with, and frank updates to the inquiry on, Post Office's disclosure have been deeply and understandably frustrating to the inquiry, to postmasters and their families... and to those witnesses who have been affected.

"I understand fully the reasons for those reactions and for the profound mistrust in many quarters, which is the starting point for any exchanges on disclosure given the underlying earlier events relating to Horizon that the inquiry is charged to investigate."

WhatsApps not handed over

The Post Office's lawyer also confirmed that WhatsApp messages were not included as part of the evidence. He suggested the app was not used to communicate.

Mr Jackson said WhatsApp was only used for "administrative" purposes. Mr Beer asked whether Paula Vennells, the head of the Post Office between 2012 and 2019, and other executives may have used the app anyway.

He asked: "If Paula Vennells was intending to attend a meeting and was going to discuss with Angela van den Bogard beforehand what to say and what not to say, she wouldn't have used, on your understanding, WhatsApps to do so?"

"Based on the information we have, no she wouldn't," Mr Jackson replied.

Ms Vennells could still be asked to hand over the WhatsApps in the future. The situation is being kept under review.

'It made us fight harder'

Sitting through the hearing for the second day in a row was Janet Skinner. She was jailed after wrongly being accused of stealing £60,000 from her Post Office in Hull, Yorkshire, and was sent to prison for nine months in 2007, aged 35.

'They haven't been very transparent. If things have been uncovered, they've been uncovered purely by accident' - Horizon scandal victim, Janet Skinner

Talking about the struggle for the documents, Ms Skinner told ITV News: "If things have been uncovered, they have been uncovered purely by accident. We have to fight harder, a lot harder.

"You're having to prove everything, it's always been a case of your word against theirs."

"It makes our fight a lot harder, when it didn't need to be that way... They've fought hard, but now we're fighting harder," she added.

The inquiry resumes on Tuesday, January 16. Representatives from Fujitsu, the company that developed the faulty Horizon software, will be under the spotlight.

Rajbinder Sangha, the release management coordinator, is due to speak at 10am. He is also a former member of Fujitsu's fraud and litigation support office.

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