The independent inquiry into how hundreds of post office workers were wrongfully accused of theft, fraud and false accounting as a result of computer errors has been urged to demand immediate compensation for those affected.
Addressing a preliminary hearing of the inquiry into one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in British legal history, Sam Stein QC, acting for 151 post office operators, said any attempt by the Post Office and government to put the issue of compensation on the back burner until the end of the inquiry must be resisted.
He told the inquiry chair, the retired high court judge Sir Wyn Williams: “Frankly, we are concerned that Post Office Ltd and BEIS [Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy] may use the lifetime of the inquiry to obfuscate and say: ‘We need to wait and see what the inquiry says’ before they act.
“The Post Office has had plenty of time to sort this out with government. They should not be permitted to add to the extent of the Post Office scandal by doing nothing, delaying payment, prolonging suffering and avoiding responsibility. Instead, we suggest that this inquiry should demand urgent and immediate action.”
Stein told Monday’s hearing that despite judgments in the court of appeal quashing the convictions of scores of post office workers, victims had still not received adequate compensation. Campaigners believe that as many as 900 operators may have been prosecuted and convicted between 2000 and 2014 because the defective Horizon IT system falsely suggested there were cash shortfalls.
Stein said that the claimants’ legal costs should be refunded. £46m of legal costs were incurred by 555 claimants when the Post Office settled a civil claim with them for £57.75m, leaving them with a net amount of less than £22,000 each.
Stein said the Post Office had told them it was in discussion with the government regarding this issue but he said that was not good enough. “We say this: Post Office Ltd and BEIS need to recognise that payments of proper and full compensation, [and] the return of legal costs, is required now – that means immediately and not at some unknown point in the future, nor subject to continuing discussions,” he said.
He said that when the inquiry started in earnest next year, it would hear accounts of post office workers who died before the names could be cleared, who contemplated or attempted suicide and whose children were bullied and spat at because of the stigma that came with the wrongful accusations.