Disclosure requests from the Post Office Inquiry will carry the express threat of criminal sanctions if responses are not good enough.
Inquiry chair Sir Wyn Williams has given further directions following a catalogue of disclosure failings by the Post Office which caused proceedings to be postponed for three weeks this month.
All future Inquiry requests for evidence to the Post Office will carry a notice under section 21 of the Inquiries Act 2005 which carries a threat of a criminal sanction and up to 51 weeks’ imprisonment.
Williams said the failure to supply all documents relevant to witnesses due to give evidence earlier this month was ‘grossly unsatisfactory’ and he noted the views held by many sub-postmasters wrongly convicted by the Post Office that the mistakes were deliberate.
Williams stressed that he remains open-minded about that position, but added: ‘It would be remiss of me to fail to guard against the possibility that there are those who are engaged in the process of disclosure of documents on behalf of the Post Office who are unwilling or unable to comply strictly with requests for disclosure of documents made of them by the inquiry and/or are unwilling to ensure strict compliance with requests.’
Ben Foat, the Post Office group general counsel, will be required to reappear before the inquiry on 5 September to explain what has gone wrong and what action has been taken to rectify failings. Williams said he may summon other lawyers to appear who are ‘directly and substantially’ involved in disclosure for the current phase of the inquiry.
Meanwhile, the chair will publish an interim report today on compensation issues for the hundreds of people affected by the Horizon IT scandal.
The report will set out the Williams’ findings and recommendations so far on the three schemes established by the Post Office and the government to compensate sub-postmasters: the Historical Shortfall Scheme, the Overturned Historic Convictions Scheme and the Group Litigation Order Scheme.
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