Sir Wyn Williams, the former High Court judge overseeing the statutory inquiry into one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in British history which saw subpostmasters wrongly convicted and jailed for fraud and theft, has released a progress update.
He states that hopes of starting witness hearings in early 2022 appear “very difficult to achieve” due to the volume of documentary evidence that still needs to be assessed but adds that he believes concluding his findings and recommendations by late 2022 is still “very achievable”.
“I wish to stress that it would be unconscionable for there to be any undue delay in the conduct of the inquiry’s business and I am determined that such delay will not occur insofar as I have the power to prevent it,” Sir Wyn said.
More than 50 subpostmasters have had past convictions quashed by the Court of Appeal so far this year, with hundreds more hoping for similar decisions.
Between 1999 and 2015, they were sacked or prosecuted after money appeared to vanish from accounts at their branches. The problems were caused by the Horizon computer system in Post Office branches which turned out to be flawed. Some subpostmasters were imprisoned after being convicted of stealing money.
The inquiry was originally established last year on a non-statutory basis, with the first public hearings in May and June 2021. But following the first tranche of Court of Appeal rulings quashing 39 convictions in April, in June this year at Sir Wyn’s request it was turned by the Government into a statutory inquiry with the power to compel witnesses and evidence.
Sir Wyn said in his progress update, the Court of Appeal rulings will be viewed as “established and incontrovertible” fact by the inquiry process.
In a written statement to Parliament, Postal Affairs Minister Paul Scully said: “I welcome that Sir Wyn Williams, chair of the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry, has published a progress update which outlines the work already undertaken by the inquiry and the planned next steps. The Government look forward to receiving Sir Wyn’s final report by the end of 2022.”
Sir Wyn said he was determined to stick to the timetable if possible.
“I regard the goal of delivering a report to the Minister by the end of 2022 as one which must be achieved, if at all possible. The information received by the Inquiry to date establishes that a wrongful conviction was first recorded against a subpostmasters in England and Wales in November 2001. There is every reason to suppose that significant queries must have been raised about Horizon by employees of Fujitsu, Post Office Ltd and subpostmasters before that time.
“Accordingly, there is every possibility that subpostmasters, members of their families and their employees have been adversely affected by Horizon over a period beginning more than 20 years ago. That being so, it is imperative that a report to the Minister is delivered as soon as is reasonably practicable.”
More subpostmasters sought to give evidence
The inquiry will consider how it can take evidence from victims of the scandal who may not wish to appear at the public hearings, Sir Wyn said.
“I am conscious that few current or former subpostmasters have, as yet, provided evidence to the Inquiry,” he said.
“It is imperative that I hear firsthand from a substantial number of affected people.
"That said, I am conscious, too, that some people may not wish to provide evidence in the full glare of a public hearing. Accordingly, it would be of considerable help to the Inquiry if all those persons who have already made witness statements for the purpose of the group litigation or in respect of their appeals against conviction voluntarily disclosed those witness statements to the Inquiry.
"They are likely to provide an important source of evidence and in some, perhaps many cases, their production would obviate the need for oral evidence. Additionally, the Inquiry Team is working on ways of obtaining oral evidence from affected people (which thereafter would be made public) but without the need for the person providing the oral evidence to give formal evidence at a public hearing.”
Support The Yorkshire Post and become a subscriber today. Your subscription will help us to continue to bring quality news to the people of Yorkshire. In return, you'll see fewer ads on site, get free access to our app and receive exclusive members-only offers. Click here to subscribe.