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Lawyer Advised Post Office To Adopt ‘cold’ Approach And Not Apologise, Inquiry Hears

An external lawyer advised the Post Office to remove apologies from letters sent to post office operators and “maintain a more cold, procedural approach”, a public inquiry has heard.

The inquiry into the Horizon IT scandal was told that Andrew Parsons, a partner at law firm Womble Bond Dickinson (WBD) who advised the Post Office for more than seven years, wrote that apologising to the operators would be “admitting some degree of culpability”.

The inquiry is examining how hundreds of individuals were pursued and prosecuted for more than a decade by the Post Office over alleged financial shortfalls in their branch accounts. It has since emerged the issues were caused by bugs in the state-owned body’s Horizon IT system.

The inquiry heard that, in 2013, Parsons had reviewed drafts of letters due to be sent out by the Post Office to a number of branch operators. The individuals had identified financial discrepancies in their branch accounts shown on the Horizon IT system which the Post Office had agreed to correct.

In an email to Post Office executives sent in June 2013, Parsons wrote: “I don’t think we should apologise in the letters. I know this sounds hard but in apologising we are admitting some degree of culpability. I think we should maintain a more cold, procedural approach to correcting what is effectively an accounting irregularity.”

On Thursday, Parsons was asked by Julian Blake, counsel to the inquiry, what the problem was legally in making an apology.

“Sometimes apologies can be interpreted as admissions,” Parsons told the inquiry. “I think it’s pretty common for lawyers in letters to consider whether an apology is appropriate or not. In my view, it leads people to consider there was an admission of legal fault when in fact the Post Office’s view was, yes, there had been a problem, but it had been corrected.”

Jo Hamilton was one of the post office operators whose case featured in a 2015 edition of Panorama. Photograph: Jeff Moore/PAParsons was also questioned by the inquiry about another email, sent in 2016, in which his law firm had urged the Post Office to “try and suppress” disclosure of a key document for “as long as possible”.

At that time, lawyers acting for the branch operators led by Alan Bates, whose campaign for justice was dramatised by ITV this year, were asking the Post Office for disclosure of its investigation guidelines in the early stages of their high court legal battle.

The email was sent in October 2016 by a junior lawyer at WBD. Parsons agreed that he had checked her draft email and inserted a paragraph in which he spoke about “ultimately withholding a key document”.

His addition read: “For now we’ll do what we can to avoid disclosure of these guidelines and try to do so in a way that looks legitimate. However, we are ultimately withholding a key document and this may attract some criticism … we’ll adopt this approach until such time as we sense the criticism is becoming serious.”

Parsons told the inquiry it was a “very poorly worded email and I regret sending it”.

He said the junior solicitor “had sent a draft for my approval earlier that day which did not contain this final paragraph. I responded to her adding it into her draft, though my purpose in doing so appears to have simply been to make clear what action we required from POL [Post Office Ltd] on this point.”

He added there were “substantive legitimate reasons for resisting disclosure of the investigation guidelines at this early stage”.

Parsons was also questioned about exchanges between himself and Rodric Williams, an internal Post Office lawyer, about possible responses to an edition of the BBC’s Panorama programme in 2015 which had raised questions about the Horizon IT system. The documentary had featured the cases of convicted post office operators Noel Thomas, Seema Misra and Jo Hamilton, who were all exonerated in 2021.

At the time, Parsons wrote that his preferred option had been for the Post Office to do nothing and await the decision of the Criminal Cases Review Commission about possible miscarriages of justice – or alternatively it could go on “full attack.”

He said in the email, which was read out to the inquiry, that the Post Office could “start attacking the postmasters’ credibility by calling out Thomas, Misra and Hamilton as the liars and criminals that they are”. Parsons told the inquiry: “On reflection that language is too strong.”

Separately, on Thursday, a Scottish law which will automatically exonerate Scots wrongly convicted as part of the Post Office Horizon scandal received royal assent and will come into force on Friday.

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