Subpostmasters ‘unhappily’ not told expert withheld Horizon bugs, lawyer says

A top lawyer brought in to advise the Post Office has told the Horizon IT inquiry it was “unhappily” the case that convicted or accused subpostmasters were not told about an expert witness withholding information about bugs in the system.

Brian Altman KC said he was not prepared to speculate, but told the probe that leading Horizon engineer Gareth Jenkins had “possibly” committed perjury based on the facts he was aware of when he was instructed in October 2013.

He said of his failure to disclose Mr Jenkins’s knowledge of bugs in the Horizon system to subpostmasters such as Seema Misra: “I just missed it, it’s as simple as that.”

Emails shown to the inquiry on Wednesday from the time prior to Mr Altman being instructed showed the Post Office were keen to employ him because he had “the ear” of the director of public prosecutions (DPP) and the Attorney General (AG) following his stint as first senior Treasury counsel between 2010 and 2013.

Counsel to the inquiry Jason Beer KC asked: “Did anyone communicate to you, upon instruction or otherwise, that an attraction of having you as counsel would have a political dimension to it – in particular because you have the ear of the DPP or AG’s office?”

Mr Altman replied: “Never.”

Brian Altman
Brian Altman KC was brought in to advise the Post Office (PA)

Mr Beer said: “Can you understand what they’re talking about here at all? Your connection, your having the ear of the AG’s office?”

Mr Altman replied: “I can see immediately from that email it was not me who made that representation, but I can see probably it was that that attracted them.”

The counsel to the inquiry continued: “Did you ever use such connections?”

Mr Altman said: “No.”

Mr Beer went on: “Were you ever asked to use such connections?”

The witness responded: “Absolutely not.”

Asked why he believed he could see that him having political connections would be useful to the Post Office, Mr Altman said: “I can’t answer that, Mr Beer, because I don’t know what was in their mind – other than they may have thought that having somebody like me on the Post Office side instructed by them might give them some leverage in the political arena – but they were totally wrong if they did.”

An email from solicitor Andrew Parsons, from Post Office-instructed law firm Womble Bond Dickinson, to Post Office lawyer Rodric Williams in July 2013 said Mr Altman was “very live to the political dimension”.

“I don’t think I had any unique insight into it.”

Mr Beer continued: “What would you have understood the political dimension to have been in 2013?”

Mr Altman replied: “Again, speculating because I can’t remember this.

“It would inevitably be the fact that Post Office was in effect a Government-owned organisation – and clearly the balloon was going up in respect to what had happened during the course of past convictions.”

The counsel to the inquiry then questioned Mr Altman on why he failed to disclose Mr Jenkins’s withholding of bugs in the Horizon system.

Mr Altman said: “I know what you’re driving at, Mr Beer, and it’s something in recent weeks which I have thought about and it’s something that should have been disclosed to appropriate people.”

The counsel to the inquiry continued: “Is the answer then that nothing was done to inform convicted defendants or in any ongoing cases, that Mr Jenkins had wrongly withheld his own knowledge of bugs in the Horizon system?”

Mr Altman said: “I think, unhappily, that has to be the case.

“Again, with the benefit of hindsight, and having thought an awful lot about this, it’s something that should have been considered for disclosure and disclosed in appropriate cases, no question.”

Mr Beer added: “And should have been considered for disclosure by you, Mr Altman?”

The witness said: “Yes, I’m accepting that.”

Questioned on what criminal offences Mr Jenkins may have committed “based on the facts as you knew them by the time you were advising in October 2013”, Mr Altman mentioned two alleged offences – perjury and perverting the course of justice.

He said: “I’m not prepared to speculate about that… because if you’re thinking about perjury, perjury requires certain conditions, which nothing I had seen suggested might be present, and perverting the course of justice and having a tendency to pervert the course of justice with the requisite intent is a particular offence, and I was not prepared to speculate, nor am I now, as to whether he was dishonest or just incompetent.”

Mr Altman went on to say Mr Jenkins had “possibly” committed perjury.

Asked why no consideration was given to including the fact that Mr Jenkins may have committed criminal offences in his advice, Mr Altman said: “It wouldn’t have crossed my mind that any police investigation or any consideration of whether he had committed offences was anything a) I was asked to do or b) would have volunteered.”

The Post Office has come under fire since the broadcast of ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office, which put the Horizon scandal under the spotlight.

More than 700 subpostmasters were prosecuted by the Government-owned organisation and handed criminal convictions between 1999 and 2015 as Fujitsu’s faulty Horizon system made it appear as though money was missing at their branches.

Hundreds of subpostmasters are awaiting compensation despite the Government announcing that those who have had convictions quashed are eligible for £600,000 payouts.

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