Mr Bates vs The Post Office: Yorkshire lawyer James Hartley on 'surreal' experience of being portrayed in ITV drama

Watching myself, as a lawyer, being played by the actor John Hollingworth over the past fewdays in “Mr Bates vs The Post Office’ - the ITV dramatisation of the postmasters’ Horizon ITscandal, really has been a surreal experience.

The series is an absolutely brilliant portrayal of one of the worst miscarriages of justice in British legal history, in which I led the Freeths’ legal team that represented 555 postmasters who sued government-owned Post Office Limited in the landmark group claim in the High Court.

Thankfully, that legal case exposed the scandal and provided the foundation for all that has followed, including government-funded compensation schemes, the quashing of dozens of criminal convictions and a public inquiry.

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For me, the drama’s success will amplify the admiration that I and others have long held for the many postmasters who, with Alan Bates leading the charge, had the courage to stand-up to the horrific corporate bullying that has now been exposed. Despite losing their livelihoods, and in some cases facing criminal charges or even prison, they drew strength and determination from each other to fight for justice.

Pictured: John Hollingworth as James Hartley and Toby Jones as Alan Bates.Pictured: John Hollingworth as James Hartley and Toby Jones as Alan Bates.
Pictured: John Hollingworth as James Hartley and Toby Jones as Alan Bates.

Both myself and John Hollingworth, the actor who plays me in the series, are from Yorkshire - I’m from Leeds and John was born in Keighley. He and I have got to know each other really well and coincidentally it transpires that we both started work at the same law firm when starting out in our respective careers, as John was in the law before moving into acting.

It’s always fascinating to watch other professionals at work in completely different fields from one’s own – in this case the acting profession. I’ve been so impressed with each of the actors’ meticulous approach to portraying characters, emotions and events as accurately as they have in the drama. This is particularly so given the highly complex story involved and the long history, over 20 years, over which the scandal has unfolded.

The actors spend an impressive amount of time getting to know the person they are playing – in a way, not dissimilar to the approach of lawyers, whose job it is to gain a deep understanding of the subject-matter of the case they are handling.

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John did precisely that, immersing himself in the subject-matter of the case, whilst also getting to know how I think and behave. He even asked me whether I have a particular pair of glasses which I wore in court – which I did and which he can be seen wearing in the ITV drama!

The real-life James Hartley.The real-life James Hartley.
The real-life James Hartley.

All of the actors clearly became very engaged in the story itself and the plight of the postmasters and the extent of the corporate scandal.

Equally impressive was the writer of the drama, Gwyneth Hughes, also from Yorkshire as it happens, who went to incredible lengths to make sure the detail was correct and then applying her creative genius to craft the story in a way that we now seeing working so well on the screen.

The whole process for me as a lawyer, observing “from the outside” these creative masters building this outstanding series, has been fascinating.

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The incredible reaction from viewers and the raising of public awareness is important for a few reasons. For the postmasters, public recognition of the fact that they did absolutely nothing wrong is, in one sense, part of their healing process. Also, the “lessons learned” from Post Office’s abhorrent behaviour will hopefully find its way into the minds of corporate leaders across the UK, who will be well-placed to ensure that nothing like this can ever happen again, even on a small scale.

I first became involved when I heard about Alan’s campaigning on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 in 2015.

I contacted Alan and said that the only way to break open the scandal was to obtain external funding and prepare for a major court battle, so that High Court judgments could become the foundation for justice. Thankfully that is what has happened.

We knew that Post Office would fight the case and that’s exactly what they did, which cost tens of millions of pounds in avoidable costs.

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For us, there were many challenges in building the case. Gathering sufficient documentary evidence was a problem. As viewers have seen in the drama series, Post Office routinely suspended or terminated postmasters’ contracts, locked them out of branches, and confiscated accounting records.

To obtain litigation funding we also needed to build a larger group of postmasters to make the case economically viable for the funders to invest in the case – they risked millions of pounds and without the funding there was no way to launch a claim.

Eventually we managed to launch the claim in the High Court.

At group meetings we held with Alan around the country, we would ask how many of the postmasters had been told by Post Office that they were the “only one” to have experienced problems with Horizon - 30 or so hands would go up – which reinforced our understanding of how sinister Post Office’s conduct had been. I also met, very early on, with Richard Roll, the Fujitsu whistleblower, which became another significant building-block in the case.

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Looking ahead, when the Horizon IT Public Inquiry reaches conclusions on the 218 issues it is investigating, this will complete the picture of what went wrong, who knew what and who should be held accountable. We know that the prosecuting authorities are watching the Inquiry very carefully to decide whether there should be cases brought against those involved in this scandal. Certainly, that level of accountability is what many people understandably want to see – without consequences how can we bring about change?

Meanwhile, around 3,000 sub-postmasters are still in the process of obtaining compensation; the process is slower than any of us want, but we will get there as quickly as we possibly can.

Without wanting to make peoples’ blood boil even more than it already is about Post Office’s conduct, it is thought that this whole scandal has cost well over £1bn

(possibly a lot more) of public money, through Post Office’s legal fees and compensation. All of this could have been avoided had Post Office done the right thing right from the beginning!

James Hartley is a Partner at law firm Freeths LLP

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