Mr. Bates v. The Post Office

James Hartley, Partner and National Head of Dispute Resolution at national law firm Freeths, is the extraordinary lawyer who, along with his team, won two landmark court cases on behalf of sub-postmasters wrongly prosecuted by the Post Office.

He has been depicted by actor John Hollingworth in the major four-part 2024 ITV drama ‘Mr. Bates v The Post Office’ which aired in January, followed by a documentary on the case for which James was interviewed.

The TV drama written by Gwyneth Hughes (Vanity Fair, Tom Jones) tells the story of Alan Bates, a former sub-postmaster, and his campaign on behalf of the victims of one of the most serious miscarriages of justice in British legal history.

James Hartley’s critical role in exposing the scandal is reflected in this series as the lawyer who painstakingly gathered 555 sub-postmaster victims for a group legal action.

In the face of intransigence, obfuscation, and worse on the part of the Post Office, James and his team fought to take their case to the High Court after two other law firms had previously tried and failed.

His journey started one morning in 2015, James was listening to Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme in his car when he heard a piece about Alan Bates – the founder of the Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance – and the plight of the many  sub-postmasters, accused of fraud and the injustice they were suffering.

James contacted Mr. Bates and his legal and support teams took on the mammoth task of gathering a critical mass of sub-postmasters to fight the Post Office through the courts, working day and night on this for a year with no fee, then after, on a reduced fee. Without enough sub-postmasters on board, it would have been impossible to get the vital litigation funding required to take this to court.

Senior managers at the Post Office, and IT firm, Fujitsu, maintained their Horizon accounting system was robust and not responsible for the accounting anomalies which triggered the Post Office’s criminal investigations into their own employees.

Recent evidence at the public inquiry has suggested that senior lawyers in the Post Office were made aware that the Horizon IT system had ‘bugs’ but still proceeded with prosecutions.

Hartley and Bates led the sub-postmasters to two landmark court victories against the Post Office who had wrongfully prosecuted more than 900 sub-postmasters for fraud, theft, and false accounting.

At the time, Alan Bates commented: “I’ve never resented the money they (the funders) got out of this because if they hadn’t funded us to start with, we would never have had a case, you’d never expose the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history.”

Those judgments led to a Public Inquiry being set up in 2020, which was converted to a statutory inquiry in June 2021. The Inquiry is ongoing.

Scores of sub-postmasters have now had their convictions quashed by the Court of Appeal. In April 2021, 39 were exonerated in one judgment which described the wrongful convictions as an ‘affront to justice’. In all around 20 sub-postmasters were jailed.

The public inquiry is continuing and will be hearing evidence well into 2024.

James and his team continue the relentless battle to secure compensation for the hundreds of postmaster clients, through the government-funded scheme, which Freeths helped to design and implement.

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