UCL Faculty of Laws


The Post Office Scandal: the impact of a TV drama on the fight for justice

9 February 2024

The Post Office Scandal: the impact of a TV drama on the fight for justice and the lessons law students need to learn.

Karen Nokes

Dr Karen Nokes, Lecturer in Law at UCL Laws, is part of a three year study into the Post Office Scandal. Here, Karen outlines the impact of the recent ITV drama on the Post Office Scandal, and the lessons that law students need to learn:

The Post Office Scandal, which saw thousands of sub postmasters wrongfully accused of accounting shortfalls between 1999 and 2015, has been brought to public prominence due to the much-accredited ITV Drama, Mr Bates vs The Post Office which aired on 1 January this year. The success of the TV drama has led to increased scrutiny of the previous (and current) conduct of the Post Office and rightfully a strong sense of public anger at the treatment of the sub postmasters. The drama has also resulted in an increase in political attention being paid to the scandal, with the Government now exploring the introduction of legislation to ensure those convicted are swiftly exonerated and a greater focus on the payment of fair and appropriate compensation and redress. Thousands of sub postmasters are still waiting for compensation to be paid, in some cases, years after the submission of claims.

I am working with Professor Richard Moorhead, Dr Rebecca Helm, and Dr Sally Day from the University of Exeter on a three-year study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, to examine the role of lawyers in the scandal, explore the sub postmasters’ experience of the criminal justice system, and to determine what implications the scandal has for lawyers’ ethics and the legal sector more widely. The Post Office scandal is a complex and multi-faceted phenomena involving actions that have had and continue to have a devastating impact on the lives of thousands of individuals, and their families.  Within the Faculty of Laws, we recognise the importance of exposing law students to the legal processes and events involved in the scandal, of exploring the central role played by the lawyers, of students being able to critically analyse what the lawyers did, and for students to examine the challenges faced by the sub postmasters and others, in their fight for justice. What follows gives further background to the scandal and examples of how we actively highlight lessons from the scandal into our educational offerings for our students.

Background to the Scandal

Almost 25 years ago, the Post Office introduced the Horizon IT system across its network, to modernise the nature of transactions across Crown Offices and Post Office branches, it soon became apparent that the system was plagued with bugs, errors, and defects, which resulted in Horizon flagging accounting “shortfalls.” These “shortfalls” were used as evidence in both criminal prosecutions and civil proceedings against hundreds of sub postmasters and were also used to terminate the contracts of thousands of others. The Post Office strenuously denied the existence of any problems with Horizon for many years. As a result of the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry, we now know that bugs, errors, and defects were known about by both the IT supplier, Fujitsu, and the Post Office from the very early days of Horizon. What followed was many years of containment and cover-up by the Post Office, some of which appears to have been enabled by lawyers.

Whilst the Horizon IT system plays a major role in the scandal, the scandal is also about the behaviour of people. Human behaviour is at the heart of this scandal. Echoing the words of one sub postmaster, whilst the IT system provided the data for punitive action to be taken against sub postmasters, it was people who decided to believe that data, people who used that data to take criminal and civil proceedings, people who decided to terminate contracts, people who decided that it was better to try and contain what they knew about Horizon defects (for fear of the commercial repercussions for the Post Office if they became known) and people who took strategic decisions in the defence of group litigation and in opposing certain aspects of the criminal appeals. People both within and outside of the Post Office, and those people included lawyers. Moving forward, it is critically important that law students hear about the role of the lawyers and others in the Post Office Scandal and learn from what has been described by the Criminal Cases Review Commission as the “the most widespread miscarriage of justice the CCRC has ever seen and represents the biggest single series of wrongful convictions in British legal history."

Highlighting lessons for law students

In our undergraduate teaching at UCL Laws, students in their second year on the module Laws’ Perspectives, convened by Dr Megan Donaldson, have previously used the Post Office Scandal, alongside other topics, to examine the operation of “law in action.” Students studied the scandal to gain an understanding of the role of private prosecutions and the limited safeguards that apply to such prosecutions, to consider the concept of legal ethics and what types of factors might have motivated the lawyers to behave in the way they did and had the opportunity to reflect on the role of technology and the dangers of the ‘segmenting of expertise’ – for example, the issue of how lawyers trusted information about the technology to the extent that it impacted upon fundamental factors such as the burden of proof.

In a third-year undergraduate module, Lawyers Ethics and Organisations, Professor Steven Vaughan, and I, explore and critically examine how lawyers practice, how and where legal services are delivered, and what challenges lawyers face in maintaining their expected professional standards, including being an ethical lawyer. Students get the opportunity to consider the tensions and challenges that lawyers face in both in-house and private practice and to critically analyse the behaviour of lawyers, considering such questions as what factors might contribute to the fallibility of lawyers and are there steps lawyers can take to avoid being found to be the wrong side of the ethical line.  Individuals within organisations who are making decisions day to day do so within complex and dynamic power and authority structures, and under influence from leaders and peers. Lawyers are no different. We use the Post Office Scandal to construct a number of ethical scenarios and case studies for students so that they are able to engage with the types of matters lawyers are asked to advise upon, the situational forces that might be at play when lawyers are being asked to provide such legal advice in such circumstances  and how students might consider the role of lawyers’ professional obligations and ethics play out. We also explore how behavioural science might shed light upon some of the unprofessional behaviour we have seen from lawyers in the Scandal. How the nature of legal practice might serve to heighten the individual psychological frailties that beset us all and the influence of organisational culture on lawyers’ ethical decision making.

On the LLM module Access to Justice - Theory and Practice that I co-lead with Sonia Kalsi, students encounter the Post Office Scandal as part of a series of seminars that cover a range of contemporary issues concerning public accesstolegal advice, representation and ‘justice’ within the legal system and the role of access to justice in mitigating inequalities and promoting social justice. Postgraduate students learn about the Post Office Scandal using an access to justice lens, exploring the range of barriers that presented challenges for the sub postmasters being able to access justice and appropriate forms of redress including funding for litigation, the use of collective or action in campaigning for justice and resultant impact of justiciable issues on mental and physical health. Students also critically explore the role of statutory public inquiries and consider if and how public inquiries play a role in accessing justice. We also invite guest speakers to attend as part of our seminars, so that students are able to gain first hand insights of a variety of access to justice topics, including the Post Office scandal.

The Post Office Scandal is shocking in its magnitude. It shows, among many other things, how lawyers have the potential to shore up or make a mockery of our system of justice; how lawyers – and their integrity, their independence, and their sense of judgement – are critical to the trust the public has in the law and in our legal system. In integrating lessons from the Post Office scandal into our teaching, we hope to make our students reflective of the behaviour of the lawyers involved and of their own behaviours as they take their law degrees into the world.