Former Post Office chief executive Paula Vennells has said that her most senior lawyers either withheld documents from her or told her information that was not true, on her long-awaited appearance before the public inquiry.

Vennells stressed that she did not want to suggest lawyers in her organisation had intentionally misled her, but she stated that key legal advices that prosecutions may have been flawed were not shown to her.

This included two pieces of advice from barrister Simon Clarke, one showing there were bugs in the Horizon system and another alleging that senior figures in the Post Office wanted minutes of meetings shredded. Vennells also claimed she was never shown advice from Brian Altman KC that a key expert witness in prosecutions was ‘tainted’ and his position as a witness ‘untenable’.

These pieces of advice were widely circulated among in-house and external lawyers working for the Post Office, but Vennells insisted they were never presented to the board.

‘There was information I was not given,’ she told the inquiry. ‘One of my reflections is that I was too trusting. I did probe and did ask questions and I am disappointed where information was not shared.’

She said there had been ‘too much reliance’ on general counsel to take decisions about what should be shared, with the original legal advices on Horizon never shown in full.

Paula Vennells arrives at the Post Office inquiry

Vennells: 'One of my reflections is that I was too trusting'

Source: NEIL HALL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Vennells did not feel she was being ‘protected’ by colleagues who did not want her to know too much, but confirmed it was general counsel Susan Crichton who had chosen not to disclose legal advices.

Vennells had given evidence to a select committee on MPs in 2015 where she stated that the Post Office had never lost a prosecution which had been based on Horizon evidence. She had been told this by Crichton at a board meeting but the information turned out to be ‘completely inaccurate in many different ways,’ Vennels told the inquiry.

‘If you are given information by the highest lawyer in the organisation, you take it completely as the truth,’ she added. ‘You assume that lawyers - and I must be clear I am not implying anything in terms of Susan Crichton - but one assumes that lawyers work to a professional code. The Post Office didn’t have sufficient oversight to check.’

Vennells also confirmed she was never shown analysis from Post Office consultants of a report by forensic accountants Second Sight. This document said that the organisation’s training, systems and investigations were all flawed, and criticised a ‘habitual desire to assign responsibility to an individual rather than to conduct root cause analysis’.

Crichton’s successor Chris Aujard saw this analysis, the inquiry heard, but did not share it with Vennells.

‘I was not under the impression people were withholding any information from me,’ she said. ‘This is a report that should have gone to the group executive… I find it very strange.’

Vennells, who was network director from 2007 to 2012, said did not realise the Post Office carried out its own investigations and prosecutions throughout this period. Inquiry chair Sir Wyn Williams pointed out this would have meant Vennells was unaware of the high-profile Seema Misra prosecution in 2010, noting it was ‘extremely surprising’ the information did not reach her. Vennells accepted it was ‘completely unacceptable’ that she did not know about the organisation’s prosecution powers.

Vennells’ oral evidence continues today.