Statement of Approach 004: conversion into a statutory inquiry, terms of reference, core participants and timetable
The Statement of Approach 004 provides updates and information regarding the conversion of the Inquiry to a statutory inquiry under s.15 of the Inquiries Act 2005.
On 19 May 2021 Paul Scully MP, Minister for London and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Minister for Small Business, Consumers and Labour Markets), made a statement to Parliament to the effect that the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry would be converted into a statutory inquiry from 1 June 2021. On the same day the Chair of the Inquiry, Sir Wyn Williams issued a statement.
As a statutory inquiry, the Inquiry will be able to require the production of evidence and documents. Although by operation of the Inquiries Act 2005 and the Inquiry Rules 2006 (“the Rules”) the Rules do not apply automatically to this converted Inquiry, Sir Wyn has determined that the Inquiry will operate under the Rules. He has made that decision because, in his view, the Rules provide a comprehensive framework for ensuring fairness in the conduct of the Inquiry and a proper framework for ensuring participation in the Inquiry (including provision for the designation of Core Participants and Recognised Legal Representatives).
Sir Wyn has appointed:
- Segun Jide as Solicitor to the Inquiry
- Jason Beer QC and Julian Blake as Counsel to the Inquiry
The Inquiry Team is currently undertaking preliminary work to ensure that progress can be made as soon as possible on the substantive issues. In addition to staffing the Inquiry with an enlarged team to support Sir Wyn, this preliminary work includes procurement of:
- an independent website, controlled and managed by the Inquiry
- a Document Management System to facilitate document reviews and disclosure to Core Participants
- a venue in which to hold public hearings and in which the Inquiry team can carry out its work
The Inquiry Team is also in the process of drafting Protocols to address issues such as applications for Core Participant Status and recognition of legal representatives; Redactions and Document Handling; Restriction Orders; Costs; and Anonymity.
Terms of Reference and issues
The Terms of Reference for the Inquiry have been updated. The full Terms of Reference are available separately on the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry 2020 ToR page, but are reproduced here as follows:
Government wants to be fully assured that through the Inquiry there is a public summary of the failings associated with Post Office Ltd’s Horizon IT system. The Inquiry will draw on the findings made by Mr Justice Fraser from the Bates and others v Post Office Limited Group Litigation (in particular Judgment (No3) ‘Common Issues’ and Judgment (No 6) ‘Horizon issues’, the judgments of the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) in R v Hamilton and others, and other judgments in which convictions have been quashed. It will consider all other relevant evidence, listen to those that have been affected, understand what went wrong, and assess whether lessons have been learned and whether concrete changes have taken place, or are underway, at Post Office Ltd.
The Inquiry shall:
A: Understand and acknowledge what went wrong in relation to Horizon, leading to the civil proceedings in Bates and others v Post Office Limited and the quashing of criminal convictions, by drawing from the judgments of Mr Justice Fraser in Bates and others, the judgments of the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) in R v Hamilton and others, other judgments in which convictions have been quashed, affected postmasters’ experiences and any other relevant evidence in order to identify what key lessons must be learned for the future.
B: Build upon the findings of Mr Justice Fraser and the judgments of the criminal courts specified in A above by obtaining all available relevant evidence from Post Office Ltd, Fujitsu, BEIS and UKGI to establish a clear account of
- the implementation and failings of Horizon over its lifecycle and
- Post Office Ltd’s use of information from Horizon when taking action against persons alleged to be responsible for shortfalls.
C: Assess whether Post Office Ltd has learned the lessons from the criticisms made by Mr Justice Fraser in his judgments following the ‘Common Issues’ and ‘Horizon Issues’ trials and those identified by affected postmasters and has delivered or made good progress on the organisational and cultural changes necessary to ensure a similar case does not happen in the future.
D: Assess whether the commitments made by Post Office Ltd within the mediation settlement – including the historical shortfall scheme – have been properly delivered.
E: Assess whether the processes and information provided by Post Office Ltd to postmasters are sufficient:
i. to enable both parties to meet their contractual obligations
ii. to enable postmasters to run their businesses. This includes assessing whether Post Office Ltd’s related processes such as recording and resolving postmaster queries, dispute handling, suspension and termination are fit for purpose. In addition, determine whether the quality of the service offer for postmasters and their relationship with Post Office Ltd has materially improved since the conclusions reached by Mr Justice Fraser.
F: Examine the historic and current governance and whistleblowing controls in place at Post Office Ltd, identify any relevant failings, and establish whether current controls are now sufficient to ensure that failings leading to the issues covered by this Inquiry do not happen again.
The Inquiry will consider only those matters set out in the preceding sections A-F. The Inquiry will not consider any issue which is outside the scope of the powers conferred upon the Inquiry by the Inquiries Act 2005. The Horizon group damages settlement (albeit the Inquiry may examine the events leading to the settlement), and/or the engagement or findings of any other supervisory or complaints mechanisms, including in the public sector, are outside the Inquiry’s scope.
Terms of Reference are not the same as a list of issues to be explored. The former set the boundaries of the Inquiry but do not go into any detail about the individual areas of focus or the particular lines of investigation. A list of issues provides more detail about the themes which the Inquiry will focus on. Over the course of the coming weeks the Inquiry Team will formulate a provisional list of issues to be explored by the Inquiry and then publish the same.
All Core Participants will have an opportunity to make written submissions as to the list of issues before the list is finalised. If Sir Wyn considers it necessary, he will convene a hearing at which oral submissions about the list of issues can be advanced by Core Participants. The timetable for making written submissions will be announced at the same time as the provisional list of issues is published.
Criteria for Core Participation Status
The Rules set out the criteria for determining applications for Core Participant status. This status allows for formal designation of (a) persons who played, or may have played, a direct and significant role in relation to the matters to which the inquiry relates; (b) persons who have a significant interest in an important aspect of the matters to which the inquiry relates; or (c) persons who may be subject to explicit or significant criticism during the inquiry proceedings or in the report, or in any interim report. The Rules also govern the recognition of legal representatives.
It is not mandatory for persons who were affected by the operation of the Horizon IT system to be designated as Core Participants in order to play a role in the Inquiry. It is possible to be a witness or to attend hearings without such designation. Indeed, the Rules also include provisions for the recognition of legal representatives for witnesses without needing those witnesses to be Core Participants. Support for witnesses will also be provided by the Inquiry Secretariat. It is envisaged that there may be a large number of current and former Post Masters who wish to play a role in the Inquiry but who do not consider that they need to be formally designated as Core Participants.
For those who wish to apply for Core Participant status, a Protocol which sets out the form of an application and deadline will be published by the end of June 2021 (applications submitted after the deadline will only be considered in circumstances that are set out in the Protocol). Applications should not be made before publication of the Protocol.
Applications that are not made in accordance with the Protocol will not be considered – this includes any correspondence about Core Participant status that is sent to the Inquiry before the Protocol is published. The Solicitor to the Inquiry and the Secretariat will be able to assist those individuals who do not have legal representation to complete the application.
Telling Your Story
Alongside the formal Inquiry hearings, the Inquiry will be running a project to hear from those whose lives were affected by the Horizon IT failures, to share their experience and to be heard and acknowledged. This will provide an opportunity for those who do not wish to become involved in the formal hearings (or even those who do) to contribute to a better understanding of the human impact of the matters being addressed by the Inquiry. Full details of this project will be set out on the Inquiry’s website in due course.
The Inquiry will aim to submit its findings to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in Autumn 2022. This is an ambitious date for a statutory inquiry. However, Sir Wyn is determined that this timescale should be achieved to the fullest extent possible. With this in mind he and the Inquiry Team are proceeding with a sense of urgency given that some of the events to be considered occurred more than 20 years ago and it is crucial that those who have been affected by those events should have answers as quickly as can reasonably be achieved. Sir Wyn acknowledges that achieving the goal of reporting in Autumn 2022 will require cooperation from, and the goodwill of all participants. Whilst it is not yet possible to provide a definitive timetable, the Inquiry is working to the following indicative timetable:
- June 2021: Publication of Protocol, followed by applications for Core Participant status and recognition of legal representatives in accordance with the Protocol. Formulating provisional list of issues.
- July 2021: Determination of Core Participant and recognised legal representative applications. Finalising provisional list of issues. Commencement date for making written submissions about the provisional list.
- August 2021: Closing date for the making of Written Submissions on the provisional List of Issues. Core Participants and others to disclose documents to the Inquiry.
- September 2021: Determination of the List of Issues (if necessary after oral submissions). Training on the Document Management System for Core Participants. Disclosure to begin.
- October 2021: Requests for witness statements made by the Inquiry (under Rule 9 of the Rules and with s.21 Inquiries Act 2005 notices where required).
- November 2021: Witness statements to be provided to the Inquiry and disclosed. Any necessary preliminary hearings.
- December 2021: Witnesses to be notified of whether they will be required to give oral evidence and, if so, when.
- Early 2022: Oral Hearings of the Inquiry.
Help and information
The Inquiry is happy to make reasonable adjustments for those who require it. Consideration is being given to a fully accessible venue for the public hearings. If you require any (non-legal) support relating to the Inquiry, please contact the Inquiry Secretariat at: POSecretariat@postofficehorizoninquiry.org.uk.
Annex A: Questions and answers
Q1. Does the Inquiry’s new status mean that you are starting from the beginning again?
The Inquiry will build on the work that has been completed to date and it is undertaking preparatory work to support the stages of a statutory public inquiry.
Q2. What will happen if I (or my legal representative) wrote to the Inquiry about Core Participant Status before the relevant Protocol was published?
The Inquiry wants to ensure that Core Participant status is granted in a fair manner and, in the interest of a consistent approach to all applicants, we ask that applications are submitted in line with the requirements of the Protocol.
If you (or your solicitor) wrote to the Inquiry indicating that you would like to apply for Core Participant status before this Statement of Approach 004 and before the Inquiry has published the Protocol governing applications to be made a Core Participant, we will not have all of the information that the Inquiry needs.
We ask that any person who has submitted an early request checks that it is compliant with the requirements of the Protocol when this is published and submits any additional information that may be required so that the Inquiry has a complete application for consideration.
Q3. When will hearings start?
The indicative timeline says early 2022 and we envisage the hearings would start in either January or February of 2022.