New secret tape reveals top Post Office lawyer was warned of 'wrongful' convictions decade ago

In the latest of our reports from the Post Office Tapes, ITV News can reveal that in 2013, the Post Office's top lawyer was told sub-postmasters could have been wrongly convicted, ITV News Investigations Editor Daniel Hewitt reports

A secret recording obtained by ITV News reveals the Post Office’s most senior lawyer was warned by independent investigators more than a decade ago that it may have misled the courts and pressured sub-postmasters into “wrongful and unsafe” guilty pleas.

The recording was of a meeting held between the Post Office’s former General Counsel Chris Aujard and Second Sight forensic accountants Ian Henderson and Ron Warmington in December 2013.

It shows the two men presented a damning assessment of the Post Office’s conduct in its investigations and prosecutions of sub-postmasters, who they found were denied the right to defend themselves and forced into “courtroom step deals” with little choice but to plead guilty.

In the recording, Mr Warmington tells Mr Aujard, who was the Post Office’s top lawyer, that the organisation is “more defensive than any company I've ever come across in my life”, describing it as being “in total denial that there was anything wrong at any point”.

Less than four months after this meeting, Post Office executives secretly decided to remove Second Sight from independently investigating sub-postmasters' cases and bring the role in-house.

Second sight forensic accountants were hired by the Post Office in 2012 to investigate issues with its Horizon IT system after campaigners including former sub-postmaster Alan Bates and then MP James Arbuthnot had called for an independent investigation.

Lord James Arbuthnot, who campaigned for sub-postmasters wrongly accused in the Horizon scandal, has told ITV News that the former head of the Post Office, Paula Vennells, should face 'serious consequences'

ITV News has revealed that in July 2013, Second Sight told Chief Executive Paula Vennells in a secretly recorded meeting about serious issues with Horizon, including allegations that branch accounts could be remotely accessed by Fujitsu workers at its headquarters in Bracknell.

They also urged Ms Vennells and other Post Office executives not to cover up the problems.

ITV News possesses another secret recording of a meeting held on December 5th 2013 with the then-Post Office General Counsel Chris Aujard, the organisation’s most senior lawyer, and Ian Henderson and Ron Warmington from Second Sight.

Mr Aujard had been in the role for six weeks when the meeting took place.

Mr Warmington outlines a catalogue of failings by the Post Office in its pursuit and prosecution of sub-postmasters.

Firstly, he offers evidence the Post Office pressured sub-postmasters into taking plea deals knowing they did not have evidence to prosecute.

He tells Mr Aujard: “In many cases, there was the threat of a theft charge, which was lifted as part of a deal, sort of courtroom steps deal, where the condition was we won't pursue the theft charge - by the way we wouldn't have had the information or the evidence to win anyway - as long as you plead guilty to the false accounting, and as long as you refrain from saying anything in your defence to do with the criticism of Horizon."

Secondly, Mr Warmington says there is evidence the Post Office may have misled the courts by presuming sub-postmasters were guilty and not properly investigating their case.

"When those first interviews take place in the branch, and the person saying: ‘I’ve been telling the helpdesk for the last six months that I've got this bloody difference’," he said.

"And all that's been happening is the investigation team has been saying, ‘So what did you do in that six months? Well, I carried it forward 'cause the help desk said the problem would go away, it would sort itself out... I pretended I'd got the cash in the till. Ah, so you've committed false accounting. Right? Thank you.

“Closed. Literally, you can hear the book being slammed shut, and that's the end of it.

“What that meant is that Post Office Limited proceeded to criminal prosecution without the underlying factors having been investigated.

"Now, that is bloody serious because it would be a criminal offence to not yield up to the defence, evidence that might undermine the prosecution.

"Post Office Limited has acted basically in a way…where it could be accused of having misled the courts. It's as serious as that, Chris.”

In the meeting, Mr Aujard responds by saying: “My focus now is on dealing with each case as it comes through. So yeah, the macro, macro issues are another pot.

"They're not in my pot. They belong to other parts of the organisation. I can feed through some of the thoughts on this call into that portal.”

He repeats his intention again in the meeting to report back what he is being told.

“The current focus is on moving it forward but I think the points have made…I will absolutely relay on to the right people," Mr Aujard said.

In total, more than 900 sub-postmasters were convicted of fraud and theft. Credit: PA

Second Sight specifically raised an individual case with Chris Aujard, that of Alison Hall, who was wrongly convicted of false accounting in 2011 after finding a shortfall of £15,000 at her branch in West Yorkshire.

Mr Warmington makes it clear to the Post Office General Counsel that there is clear evidence Alison Hall could well be innocent.

He said: "When you get to the Alison Hall case…the key question is going to be why did the investigation team proceed to a prosecution for false accounting when the underlying cause for that without much doubt, was that she got in a complete mess over scratch cards when Post Office Ltd knew that there was a huge problem with reconciliation of scratch cards.

“And yet it doesn't seem that either the investigation team and the prosecution team knew that, or if they knew about it, they didn't cut her any slack because of it…and it's really serious 'cause it's potentially an unsafe conviction."

Ian Henderson adds: “We are consistently seeing prosecutions that are focused on the false accounting issue with no regard for actually identifying what has caused the deficiency in the first place.”

Alison Hall pleaded guilty to false accounting despite the General Council being told there was 'clear evidence' of her innocence Credit: ITV News

Chris Aujard responds: “It is undoubtedly the case that there is a lot of, you know, a lot of individual distress..”

We played the recording to Alison Hall, whose conviction was overturned in 2021, eight years after her case was raised with the Post Office’s top lawyer.

“It’s unbelievable,” Alison says. “You think it can’t get any worse, can’t put any more stress on you. Then this comes out. Disgusting.”

Listening to the recordings about her case, she asks: “Why wasn’t I told? Why has it taken all this time for this to come out?”

“I’ve ended up going through another seven years before I got my conviction overturned. if they knew it wasn’t a secure case, why didn’t they try and get my conviction case overturned sooner?”

Have you heard our new podcast Talking Politics? Every week Tom, Robert and Anushka dig into the biggest issues dominating the political agenda…

So what happened after that meeting that December 5 meeting in 2013?

We don’t know whether Chris Aujard did take it higher within the Post Office, as he promised the investigators.

We do know that four months after this meeting, documents show Post Office management secretly decided to sack Second Sight and instead bring the investigation of sub-postmasters within the remit of the Post Office.

Prosecutions didn’t begin being overturned until seven years later in 2020.

Professor Richard Moorhead said: 'He [Chris Aujard] has an obligation to report all material information to his client… It’s so serious'. Credit: ITV News

Professor Richard Moorhead is an expert in legal ethics and a member of the Horizon Compensation Advisory Board. He said Mr Aujard would have been obliged to take what he was told in that meeting to the Post Office board.

“He [Chris Aujard] has an obligation to report all material information to his client… It’s so serious, that to my mind the board would be the organ that needs to hear about it," Professor Moorhead told ITV News.

“[Second Sight] are setting out the key facts, the key problems that the Post Office faces in relation to this, and saying that he needs to deal with it. And we know it wasn’t properly dealt with. That’s what it’s really about.”

Labour MP and former chair of the Business and Trade Committee Darren Jones told ITV News: “Over a number of years, as more and more people understood what was happening, they allowed prosecutions of innocent sub-postmasters to continue, failed to admit their errors and hoped to get away with it - that to me seems to be the definition of a coverup.

“As a consequence of that people should suffer the consequences of their behaviour. They should not be allowed to say sorry and go home. That is the least that victims should expect.”

In a statement, Mr Aujard's representative told ITV News: “Chris was the interim general counsel for the Post Office on a fixed-term contract for around 16 months in the period from mid-October 2013 through to late February 2015.

"Chris has been called as a witness to the Inquiry and fully supports its role but whilst the process is ongoing, he is unable to comment further.”

A Post Office spokesperson said: “We remain fully focused on getting to the truth of what happened and supporting the statutory Public Inquiry, which is chaired by a judge with the power to question witnesses under oath, and is therefore best placed to help achieve this.”

Ian Henderson and Ron Warmington told ITV News they could not comment on the recording as they have been designated Core Participants in the ongoing Post Office Inquiry and have undertaken confidentiality agreements.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know…