Protocol for Providing Oral Evidence at Hearings
1. This Protocol sets out how the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry (the Inquiry) will approach oral hearings and the questioning of witnesses. This Protocol does not apply to the hearing on 8 November 2021 in respect of the Provisional List of Issues.
2. The Inquiry is currently in the process of obtaining written statements from witnesses in accordance with the Protocol on Witness Statements. It is anticipated that the Inquiry will receive a very large number of written statements and it will not be possible to hear oral evidence from all witnesses. However, every written statement will be read by the Chair and by the Inquiry legal team and will form part of the body of evidence on which the Chair’s report will be founded. The Inquiry wishes to underline that the evidence of witnesses who are not called to give oral evidence will be of considerable value to the Inquiry.
3. The first stage of evidential hearings will be devoted to evidence about the experience of sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses, managers and assistants, both current and former, as well as close family members or partners of those who are now deceased. These hearings will focus on the individual, personal experiences of people who have been directly affected by the failings of the Horizon IT system and the impact this had on their lives. The Inquiry expects that there will be further opportunities for affected individuals to provide oral evidence in the course of the Inquiry. Updates in this regard will be provided through the Inquiry’s website.
4. The procedures outlined below are not intended to cover every eventuality or every procedural issue that may arise. It follows that, where the interests of justice and fairness so require, the Inquiry may need to depart from this Protocol. Further, this Protocol may be amended from time to time, in which case an amended version will be published on the Inquiry website.
Procedure for Oral Hearings
5. This section of the Protocol provides practical information about the way in which hearings will be conducted.
6. Under section 18 of the Inquiries Act 2005, the Chair is obliged to take such steps as he considers reasonable to secure that members of the public (including reporters) are able to attend the Inquiry (or view a simultaneous transmission of proceedings) or to obtain or view a record of evidence and documents given, produced or provided to the Inquiry.
7. Information regarding the dates, times and venues of Inquiry hearings will be published on the Inquiry website. A system of registration will operate, to ensure that venue capacity is not exceeded. Priority for seating will be given to core participants. There will be separate seating areas for recognised legal representatives and members of the media. People who wish to attend the hearings are strongly encouraged to register in advance.
8. Inquiry hearings will be live streamed on the Inquiry’s YouTube channel and recordings will be made available via the Inquiry’s website in due course. Transcripts of the Inquiry hearings will be made available on the Inquiry’s website the following day. Attendees (including press) will not be permitted to film or take pictures in the hearing room.
9. Pursuant to section 19 of the Inquiries Act 2005, restrictions can be imposed on attendance at the Inquiry, or at any particular part of the Inquiry, or on the disclosure of any evidence or documents given, produced or provided to the Inquiry.
10. Any applications for a Restriction Order (for example where anonymity is sought by a witness giving oral evidence) will be determined by the Chair in accordance with the power under section 19 and the procedure set out in the Protocol on Redaction, Anonymity and Restriction Orders.
11. The written statements of a witness giving oral evidence will be disclosed to core participants in advance of the hearing at which that witness is to give their oral evidence. Those statements will also be published on the Inquiry’s website at the time, or shortly after, the witness gives oral evidence. Such disclosure will take place in accordance with the Protocols on Witness Statements and Redaction, Anonymity and Restriction Orders.
12. Where a witness who has been granted anonymity is invited to give oral evidence, the following procedure will be applied:
a. A Restriction Order specific to the individual witness will be made by the Chair, prohibiting the publication or disclosure of the name or address of the witness or of identifying information.
b. Before the witness gives evidence, the Chair will explain that a Restriction Order is in place which prohibits the disclosure or publication of the name or address of the witness or of information which would identify the witness.
c. No mention will be made of any information which has been redacted from the witness’s written statement.
d. No recognisable image of the witness will be live streamed or shown on a video recording of the hearing.
e. Further measures may be introduced where considered to be necessary such as screening, a private entrance to the hearing room and/or the voice of the witness being distorted in the live stream and video recording of the hearing.
f. If at any point during their evidence the witness accidentally gives any identifying information, the Chair is able to halt the proceedings. There will be sufficient delay on the transmission to allow for the feed to be stopped and that portion omitted from the live stream and video recording.
g. Before the transcript of the oral evidence of the witness is published, it will be checked to ensure that the witness’s anonymity has been preserved.
The Inquiry is always willing to consider other ways of preserving anonymity, if individuals consider that would help them to give the evidence they wish to give. The Inquiry will also hear any representations from members of the press with regard to anonymity and/or special measures.
13. A friend or relative of a witness may sit with that witness while they give oral evidence as personal support (but in a non-speaking role), if this would assist the witness to give their best evidence to the Inquiry. It is also possible for witnesses giving oral evidence to meet Counsel to the Inquiry and visit the hearing room before the hearing. These and any other measures to facilitate the giving of oral evidence should be requested in advance by getting in touch with the Inquiry Team.
14. Oral evidence will be given under oath or affirmation.
Questioning of Witnesses
15. This section of the protocol explains the Inquiry’s approach to the questioning of witnesses at the oral hearings in accordance with the Inquiry Rules 2006. Under Rule 10, only Counsel to the Inquiry or the Inquiry panel (in this case, the Chair) may ask questions of a witness giving oral evidence at an inquiry hearing. This is the general rule, reflecting the fundamentally inquisitorial nature of a public inquiry.
16. In line with Rule 10, and in order to ensure that all witnesses are able to give their best evidence, the Chair will permit the recognised legal representatives of core participants to ask questions during oral hearings pursuant to the following process and subject to time limits, and such other conditions and interventions as the Chair determines.
a. The recognised legal representatives of core participants should inform Counsel to the Inquiry of the issues/questions they consider a particular witness should be asked about, the relevance to the witness, and the documents which it is proposed should be put to a witness. This should be done in the form set out in the Annex to this Protocol by email to Counsel to the Inquiry no later than 14 days before the date of the hearing at which the witness is scheduled to give evidence.
b. Counsel to the Inquiry will consider those submissions and revert to the recognised legal representative no later than 5 days before the date on which the witness gives evidence. Counsel’s response will indicate which proposed issues or questions (i) Counsel to the Inquiry will pursue; (ii) the Chair has given permission for the recognised legal representative to pursue; or (iii) will not be taken forward during the oral hearing under (i) or (ii), above (unless a separate application is made to the Chair during the course of the hearing by the recognised legal representative).
c. The Chair may limit the time allowed for questioning by witnesses’ recognised legal representatives. The questioning will be limited to the issue(s) for which permission has been granted. If the Chair permits one recognised legal representative to ask questions, it does not follow that all recognised legal representatives will be granted permission. As such, where more than one recognised legal representative considers an issue has been insufficiently addressed, the Chair may only give permission for one of them to pose questions.
Support for Witnesses
17. Giving oral evidence to a public inquiry may cause people to feel anxious or worried. Relating experiences may bring back difficult memories or feelings for witnesses. The Inquiry wishes to ensure witnesses feel supported throughout the process. If you are called to give oral evidence, please feel free to contact the Inquiry to speak about the process or to discuss accessing additional support in the lead up to and during the hearing(s).
18. Costs relating to preparation for and attendance at oral hearings are dealt with under the Inquiry’s Costs protocol relating to legal representation at public expense, which may be found on the Inquiry’s website.
Issued under the authority of the Chair on 03 November 2021