A new landmark study into legal failings associated with the Post Office scandal aims to support improvements in culture and ethical practice to prevent similar injustices occurring in the future.
The scandal, currently subject to a statutory judicial inquiry, has blighted scores of lives. Computer error, corporate incompetence, and potentially problematic lawyering led to hundreds of sub-postmasters and mistresses being falsely accused and sometimes convicted of criminal offences. Many more were thrown out of their businesses, left in debt and had their livelihoods destroyed. To date, over 80 defendants have had their wrongful convictions quashed on appeal.
Lawyers were at the heart of this disaster as it unfolded over 20 years. A team based at the University of Exeter and UCL are working to discover more about the scandal, and the role of lawyers in it. The research will involve building a detailed case study of what happened during the Post Office scandal and identifying any professional or ethical failures that contributed to it. Interviews with key participants, including sub-postmasters and in-depth causal analyses with key professionals will mean the project engages with hundreds of people with relevant insight.
The three-year project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, is led by Professor Richard Moorhead and Professor Rebecca Helm from the University of Exeter and Dr Karen Nokes, from UCL. The team is working with a professional partner LBC Wise Counsel, in-house lawyers and others, to understand and develop thinking on ethical decision-making more broadly.
Work by the research team has already led to the Post Office Inquiry being widened.
Professor Moorhead said: “The research will enable us to deepen our engagement with the victims affected by the scandal; ensure that the right lessons are learned about what went wrong and why; and work on practical strategies to reduce the chances of such terrible events happening again.”
The research team hope to use the research to identify ways of protecting against similar injustice in the future. This will include building a practical theory of lawyers’ ethics to facilitate ethical standard that actively work to prevent injustice.
Dr Nokes said: “The scandal shows that when it works badly the legal system, and lawyers in particular, can have egregious effects on ordinary people’s lives. Through our research with victims and lawyers, we plan to develop strategies that can be used to encourage lawyers to consider and, if necessary rethink, their own professional mindsets.”
Findings will be shared via a website, working papers; policy papers and briefings; and videocasts. Researchers will meet with the Legal Services Board, the SRA and the Justice Select Committee and keep victims of the Post Office Scandal updated about their work.