Statement of Chair in relation to public hearings in 2022
1. On 9 December 2021, I published a statement in which I provided details as to how I intended to make progress with the work of the Inquiry for the remainder of this year and into the early part of 2022. In particular, I gave notice that I intended to begin hearings in the week commencing 14 February 2022 at which evidence would be given about the human impact suffered by those adversely affected by Horizon. My clearly expressed preference was that these hearings would be face to face and in different geographical locations throughout England and Wales. However, I also made it clear that I would conduct hearings remotely, if circumstances dictated that I should or if such hearing were requested by participants.
2. For reasons which will be obvious, over the last two weeks I have given considerable thought as to how I should conduct these hearings.
3. Given the circumstances currently prevailing and those which are likely to exist in the New Year by reason of the ongoing pandemic I have reached the clear conclusion that the hearings which will commence in February 2022 should be conducted remotely. My reasons for reaching this conclusion are as follows.
3.1 It is vital that these hearings begin promptly in the week commencing 14 February 2022 if my overarching aim of concluding the evidence gathering work of the Inquiry during 2022 is to be achieved.
3.2 It is not possible (without incurring disproportionate expense and increasing the workload of the Secretariat substantially) to make arrangements which would both preserve the possibility of face to face hearings and yet allow for a seamless transition to remote hearings if the circumstances prevailing in mid - February dictate that should occur. In my view, the incurring of such expense and the increase in the workload of the Secretariat cannot be justified given the very significant risk that face to face hearings (certainly on any substantial scale) might not be possible.
3.3 Further, and very importantly, I am satisfied that remote hearings will not impede the work of the Inquiry in any way. The main purpose of the hearings is to provide to those adversely affected by Horizon a public platform from which they can give evidence about their experiences. That purpose will not be frustrated in any way if evidence is taken in remote hearings. Indeed, it is at least possible and perhaps even likely that the giving of evidence from their own home or some other location of their choice will positively assist those giving evidence to provide a coherent and detailed account of the adverse impacts from which they have suffered.
4. Accordingly, over the course of the coming weeks, those whom I have identified as potential witnesses for the hearings in February will be contacted on my behalf and arrangements for the taking of their evidence will be explained to them and finalised.
5. I wish to stress that remote hearings are not incompatible, in any sense, with public hearings. Those who wish to watch and listen to the hearings will be able to do so and, subject to any directions I may issue, appropriate arrangements will also be made for Core Participants and Interested Persons to attend the hearings remotely.
6. Following the conclusion of the public hearings mentioned above (and any informal hearings at which human impact is considered), it will not be possible to begin further public hearings more or less immediately. The number of documents to be considered by the Inquiry is considerable and a period of time must be set aside for considering the documents and assessing their significance.
7. That means that public hearings will not resume until a suitable date in June 2022. I anticipate that public hearings will begin in mid-June and continue until the end of July. Following a break, public hearings will resume in mid-September and continue until mid-November by which time all the oral evidence should have been obtained.
8. My current view is that the public hearings between June and November should cover six phases as described below.
Phase 1 The Horizon IT System: procurement, design, pilot, roll out and modifications.
Phase 2 Operation: training, assistance, resolution of disputes, knowledge and rectification of errors in the system.
Phase 3 Action against Sub-postmasters and others: policy making, audits and investigations, civil and criminal proceedings, knowledge of and responsibility for failures in investigation and disclosure.
Phase 4 Redress: access to justice, Second Sight, Complaint Review and Mediation Scheme, conduct of the group litigation, responding to the scandal and compensation schemes.
Phase 5 Governance: monitoring of Horizon, contractual arrangements, internal and external audit, technical competence, stakeholder engagement, oversight and whistleblowing.
Phase 6 Current practice and procedure and recommendations for the future.
9. Phases 1 and 2 should be considered at the hearings in June and July 2022 and phases 3-6 should be considered from mid-September onwards.
10. It will be clear from the above that I will not achieve my well-known ambition of presenting a report to the Minister by the end of 2022. That, of course, is a source of some regret to me. However, in large part, this has come about because all the Core Participants and Interested Persons have chosen to engage with the Inquiry fully and constructively. To repeat, the number of documents to be considered is very substantial. I have no doubt that very many documents will be disclosed to the Inquiry which will throw considerable light upon the issues which I am obliged to investigate. These documents will have very considerable evidential significance and for that reason they must be understood and assessed thoroughly.
Sir Wyn Williams
21 December 2021