Lawyers leading compensation claims on behalf of sub-postmasters caught up in the Post Office Horizon scandal have warned it could take up to two years to ensure full and fair redress for their clients.

James Hartley, national head of dispute resolution with national practice Freeths, said the 400-plus claimants his firm is representing are waiting an ‘unacceptably long’ time to be compensated for wrongful convictions.

Appearing before the House of Commons business select committee on Tuesday, Hartley accused Post Office lawyers handling disclosure issues of ‘deep incompetence and inefficiency’, stating that it took at least six months to disclose records that allowed claims to be made.

‘There are a lot of heads of loss where we are not seeing fair offers,’ added Hartley, who was portrayed in the ITV drama Mr Bates v The Post Office. ‘The clients we act for are exhausted with the process and traumatised, and they see too many parallels with this scheme and what happened with the enormous battle they had in the High Court [to clear their names].’

Hartley said claimants who suffered bankruptcy, family breakdown and homelessness were having claims for psychiatric harm rejected by the Post Office, adding: ‘That is offensive to postmasters because they know what they have been through.’

Freeths represents claimants going through the group litigation order scheme (GLO) consisting of those who brought the group claim that exposed the Horizon IT scandal.

Neil Hudgell, chairman of national firm Hudgell Solicitors, said other claimants in the Historic Shortfall Scheme risked being under-compensated. He suggested there was ‘too much lawyering’ going on from the Post Office and that victims were being asked to prove losses that were ‘self-evident’. Of the 176 clients with offers, Hudgell said he could not find one that he could sign off without further interrogation, and that in every case there was an element of the offer missing at least one element. He added that a ‘very significant’ number of claims that have been settled already – most without legal representation – may need to be reviewed.

Hudgell and Hartley appearing before the House of Commons business select committee

Hudgell and Hartley appeared before the House of Commons business select committee

Source: House of Commons/UK Parliament

The five-hour committee session ended with evidence from Post Office chair Henry Staunton, who has claimed that the government asked him to slow compensation payments until the election. The government denies this.

Three former postmasters, including Alan Bates who led the group litigation, earlier gave evidence to the committee that they had yet to receive full compensation.

Tony Downey, who was wrongly accused of stealing £35,000 from his branch in Hawkshead in the Lake District, was made bankrupt and forced to leave his community. He has not worked since. Downey told MPs that his claim started 16 months ago and it took eight months for an offer to be made which was ‘nowhere near’ what he was owed.

‘For most of us we are not believed – it is as if we are making up,’ Downey said of the Post Office’s response to his claim. ‘This happened to us, they did this to us and they admit it on paper but when it comes to it they are not paying.’

Tim Brentnall, whose conviction for false accounting was quashed in 2021, said it had taken three years to put together a claim due to the level of detail the Post Office demanded – much of which was near-impossible to source from so long ago.

He said: ‘It feels like [the Post Office] think we have got away with something or they don’t believe our version of the story…. I have a baby due with my first partner in June this year. I don’t want interims or steps, I want to be able to not worry about the Post Office and not think about it nearly every day. I want to put it behind me and move with my life.’