Post Office Scandal – Averting Group Actions
“The Post Office case is less about a failed computer system and more about the way a corporate responded to the issue.”
Post Office Horizon system
James Hartley, Partner and National Head of Dispute Resolution, is of no doubt that, had Post Office Limited considered the potential human impact of a flaw in its Horizon accounting system, and looked at the evidence holistically, it would have avoided the catastrophic human damage inflicted on thousands of its postmasters and averted the PR disaster that unfolded.
Instead, Post Office not only failed to avert the disaster, but when problems arose it compounded matters by taking a stance of “…defend, defend, defend; deny, deny, deny”, which led to a major defeat in the High Court, huge compensatory pay outs, irredeemable reputational damage and a scandal that has become known as the worst miscarriage of justice in British history.
James’ observations are derived from a long career in commercial dispute resolution and from more than six years working on the Post Office case, in which he and his team secured justice for 555 postmasters and exposed Post Office’s unlawful actions.
Post Office scandal
Over a 14-year period, Government-owned Post Office Limited prosecuted more than 700 postmasters for theft and false accounting. Its evidence came principally from data produced by the flawed Horizon computerised point of sale system. As a result, victims faced criminal convictions, were left financially ruined when debts were pursued by Post Office, and many were ostracised from their families and communities.
Post Office denied any wrongdoing for many years. Our legal team, led by James, successfully fought and won the legal battle on behalf of 555 claimant postmasters. Post Office eventually settled the case and issued a formal apology, paying £57.75m in compensation and agreeing to implement a compensation scheme for thousands of other affected postmasters. The historic case also led to a public inquiry and the quashing of hundreds of wrongful criminal convictions.
In 2022, the Government agreed to implement an additional compensation scheme to ensure that the 555 claimants are properly compensated for having to fight the legal case and incur litigation funding costs which unfairly depleted their recoveries in the High Court.
In fighting this and other complex litigation cases, James’ team is now widely considered to be one of the foremost dispute resolution teams in the UK. The team is consistently within the top 10 law firms that handle the most High Court litigation in the UK.
Advising corporates on group action defence
The team regularly advises its corporate clients on strategies to avoid group actions, or collective proceedings as they are often known in the UK.
As such, they are keen to share their experience and expertise, so that other large corporates learn from Post Office’s lessons. And while the Freeths team in that instance fought for the claimants, their primary focus is with corporates applying the deep insight gained in the case to reduce the risk of this type of litigation and to devise sophisticated resolution strategies when problems do occur.
The number of group actions against companies continues to increase, so there is more need than ever to manage the risks proactively.
James explained: “Post Office conducted criminal prosecutions over many years, without its board once stepping in to stop it happening. The warning signs were nevertheless there.”
Post Office lessons learned
- Identifying problems early
James said: “We encourage businesses to think about the measures that should be put in place to spot potentially high-impact scenarios very early”
- Litigating with purpose
James continued: “When problems do occur, we encourage strategies that incorporate ‘People, Planet, Profit’ principles, which can help businesses resolve issues responsibly and efficiently, whilst also preserving or enhancing reputation”
- Prevention & containment
Prevention and containment of issues, as mentioned above, is the primary risk-management goal. But if and when your business needs to defend itself against group litigation actions, you need a team that is strategic, so that litigation solutions align with your business objectives
- ARC system – assessing strategic options
Using our unique ARC system , we devise winning strategies for clients’ wide-ranging disputes. The ARC system involves a systematic approach to assessing strategic options, risk/benefit outcome scenarios and action plans. This system has been successfully deployed in many cases, including the Post Office case
Strategic tips for litigation risk management:
Your business should be conscious of the threat of group actions and other high-stakes litigation. The steps you can take to manage these risks include:
- Monitoring early warning signs such as customer complaint trends and social media ‘noise’ relating to your business or your sector
- Responding quickly and effectively to claims and disputes at the earliest opportunity and consider the wider risks of escalation and regulatory action when devising strategies
- Incorporating ‘people, planet, profit’ principles into resolution strategies
- Adopting a risk management approach and confronting & resolving issues as they arise, to minimise the risk of escalation
- Identifying ‘low probability, high-impact risks’ and manage them proactively
- Building forecasting into your strategic planning, including outcome scenario planning
- Don’t ignore emerging disputes or claims – grasp the nettle!
- Considering the impact on your company’s reputation of all actions taken
- Assembling the right team to handle significant matters: combining professional insight with technology, a best-in-class multidisciplinary team and data-driven decisions for successful outcomes
National news coverage
- James Hartley BBC Breakfast interview | 3 January 2024
- James Hartley Radio 5 Live interview | 2 January 2024
- Legal 500 podcast:
Post Office Horizon scandal – Legal Business in conversation with James Hartley
Post Office Subpostmasters got the best deal in legal battle
- The Times (subscription-based content):
We were hearing the most harrowing stories
- Financial Times (subscription-based content):
Bankruptcy, jail ruined lives – inside the Post Office scandal
- The Lawyer (subscription-based content):
The Lawyer Awards – litigation team of the year
Post Office Scandal – Averting Group Actions Lawyers
0345 077 9581
0345 077 9582
0345 030 5801
The Post Office scandal – LinkedIn LivePast Events 11th Jan 2024
Government announces Freeths appointed to work on new compensation scheme for over 500 Post Office victimsNews 30th Jun 2022
Group Litigation Order against Post Office Limited is approvedNews 28th Mar 2017
‘Doing the right thing’ is at the heart of Freeths. Find out more about our excellent client service and the strong set of values that guide the way we work.
Talk to us
Freeths are a leading national law firm with 13 offices across the UK. If you have a query about our services or just want to find out more, why not give us a call?
Contact: 03301 001 014