Professor Richard Moorhead is a member of the law faculty at the University of Exeter, specialising in lawyers’ ethics and regulations. Much of his recent work has been around the Post Office scandal and the investigation into the Horizon system. He has appeared in numerous media outlets to discuss the scandal, including BBC’s Newsnight. The scandal concerns the false prosecution and sometimes imprisonment of hundreds of subpostmasters across the UK accused of stealing from their businesses, despite this being caused by the faulty Horizon system. The scandal has been ongoing for decades but has only recently been brought to light with the Post Office being found to have been at fault in 2019 through a civil court case brought by former postmaster Alan Bates and over 500 others. This has been most recently popularised by the ITV docudrama Mr Bates vs. the Post Office. Professor Moorhead was elected a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in 2019 and a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts in May 2016. He sits on the editorial board of the International Journal of the Legal Profession, and the advisory boards of the Journal of Law and Society and Ethics and Behaviour.
Exeposé: As an expert in legal ethics, could you explain how you came into working on the Post Office scandal and the Horizon investigation?
Richard Moorhead: I got involved through a lawyer who was involved in the case who I knew through other work, and he asked me to look at the High Court judgement in the Bates case. There were two big judgements which were 150,000 words each with lots going on and he thought I would be interested. So, I started reading it and he was completely right. There were lots of problems with what lawyers had done or had probably done and so I started to follow the story from there. The story gets worse and worse each week or each month, particularly at the minute.
É: How do you think the legal system and lawyers have handled the Post Office scandal, considering how it is now typically characterised as one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in British legal history?
RM: It’s basically a story of lawyers leaning too heavily towards what their clients want them to do rather than what they should do and what they’re permitted to do. Businesses like the Post Office want to make as much money as possible and they saw that the Horizon system and how the postmasters saw the system as a problem but they blamed the postmasters rather than the system. The lawyers helped them to sue the postmasters. They helped them terminate their contract, throw them out of their businesses and sometimes their homes. They helped bankrupt these people. They helped prosecute these people. Usually where the evidence was inadequate or flawed it showed real problems with Horizon and the lawyers hid that. When those problems became apparent in around 2009 – certainly by 2013 – the lawyers helped the Post Office protect its reputation rather than help them deal with the problems and that led to a cover-up of substantial injustice, substantial problems in the computer system and the misleading of Parliament and the courts by the Post Office, and probably by the lawyers too. So those are the things which show why lawyers are so involved and central. They’re not the only cause but they were a central cause.
É: One of the big structural factors of the Post Office is its ability to conduct private prosecutions with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) being largely uninvolved. Do you think that that is something which you think should be reformed or repealed entirely?
RM: I think it made some things easier [for the Post Office] in some respects but there are the same issues in Scotland where people were prosecuted for Post Office problems but were handled by the Scottish equivalent of the CPS – the Crown Office. That suggested a problem not entirely to do with private prosecutions. It’s a problem for the Post Office investigation department, which is common to all of these cases and the way that people prosecute generally, not just the way the Post Office prosecuted. I think it was made worse by the private prosecution dynamic, so they got away with more by privately prosecuting in England. There is also evidence of really quite serious problems in Scotland, so I don’t think it’s really down to private prosecutions.
É: One of the most recent developments has been the resignation of Henry Staunton as Chairman of the Post Office. What do you think the next Chairman has to do to rebuild trust with the public and postmasters?
RM: The new chairman has to really change the culture of the Post Office and to create a fresh start. They need to change the way they are behaving to the postmasters when they are dealing with compensation claims. That’s the really central thing. I think that that means they need to get rid of some of the more senior people in the organisation, I’m afraid. The CEO – Nick Read – his position will come under considerable scrutiny; I don’t think there’s any avoiding that. Other people involved in the claims handling process will need to be looked at. People who have been involved in the Post Office at a senior level from before 2019 certainly before 2019, when the Bates case was decided, and possibly 2021 when the Hamilton decision was given [when Jo Hamilton and many other former postmasters had their convictions quashed]. Those people will all need to be looked at and considered as to whether they can be trusted with the postmasters, with the public, with the politicians, whether that can all be maintained. At the minute, it doesn’t look like it so there needs to be quite a radical change in the Post Office beyond the Chairman, and indeed the CEO.
É: Currently the statutory inquiry into the Post Office is ongoing. Do you have high hopes for it and for its conclusions when they come out?
RM: I think the inquiry seems to be doing a good job so far. They seem to be calling the right people, they seem to be asking the right questions and they seem to be finding out as well what’s been going on. That’s all very strong. We don’t know what conclusions they will come to but certainly the inquiry team and the chairman – a retired judge – do seem to have the trust of the participants and experienced watched such as me are impressed by the insight that they are seeking so I think it’s all positive so far but we’ll have to wait and see.
É: There have been discussions over the involvement or rather lack of involvement from ministers responsible for the Post Office over the past few decades from all three major UK political parties, such as Ed Davey the current leader of the Liberal Democrats. Do you think these criticisms are fair or justified?
RM: I think singling out Ed Davey is not fair. I think he does have questions to answers and those questions grow after he left and was replaced by his successors Jo Swinson [former Liberal Democrat MP and leader] and various Conservative ministers. There are questions for Davey, Swinson, Baroness Neville-Rolfe and even Paul Scully, who is thought of very favourably by the sub-postmasters, for instance. There are questions all the way along the line, particularly from Ed Davey onwards. There are questions for his predecessors too such as ministers under Tony Blair and even goes back to Peter Lilley, who was a minister under John Major. The questions are getting increasingly serious around 2009, 2010 onwards and particularly from 2013 and leading up to the Bates litigation. Yes, there are questions for ministers, but it probably wouldn’t be fair to single out Ed Davey – not to say he doesn’t have questions to answer – but to single him out seems a little bit unfair.
É: How helpful do you think the media has been in covering the scandal considering the only consistent coverage has come after the airing of the Mr Bates vs the Post Office docudrama despite long-running coverage from smaller publications like Private Eye and Computer Weekly?
RM: I think there was quite decent coverage before the drama. It was not as extensive as one would have liked but equally the story was just starting to hot up. The evidence was starting to pile up, so the two things coincided well in timing. I don’t think there’s any doubt that the drama supercharged press, media and political interest. But before that there was good work being done by [journalists] Nick Wallis and Tom Witherow as well as Computer Weekly and Private Eye. Other people were starting to pick up the story such as BBC journalists and the drama came along and really supercharged interest. I don’t think they were doing a bad job before but they’re certainly doing a much better job now. I think that is partly because us, the readers and viewers, are interested. So, it is a question for the readers as much as it is for the media, but the drama has made a massive difference to the levels of interest from the press and the general public.
Note: This interview was conducted on the 30th January 2024.