The Solicitors Regulation Authority is probing the conduct of Post Office lawyers over compensation offer letters sent to victims of the Horizon scandal, it has emerged.
The Gazette understands that the regulator is looking into the tone and nature of correspondence with sub-postmasters after complaints raised by the independent board set up to oversee compensation payments.
In an email to the Post Office last month, the board’s chair Professor Christopher Hodges said victims continue to be ‘confused, intimidated and hurt’ by the behaviour of the Post Office and its lawyers in negotiating settlements and in the continued use of legalistic terms.
‘This is especially true for the significant number who remain deeply traumatised, and who do not understand the practice of terminology of what they see as an aggressive approach to settling claims,’ said Hodges. ‘This is irrespective of whether the language or behaviour may or may not be technically permissible, and irrespective of the fact that they may have legal representation.’
The SRA has indicated that it intends to wait until the end of the going Post Office Inquiry to decide if proceedings should be brought against anyone involved in the scandal.
But it is understood the regulator has sought urgent clarification from the Post Office on whether compensation letters are being appropriately labelled. The team assigned to investigating the whole matter has widened its scope to include this matter.
Hundreds of sub-postmasters wrongly convicted or accused or wrongdoing are in negotiations through three different compensation schemes administered by the Post Office.
But concerns were flagged up last year that letters being sent marked ‘without prejudice’ were causing fear among recipients and a reluctance to get advice and support around settlement decisions. In one case, even a letter recording the decision declining to pay compensation was referred to as without prejudice.
The Post Office insisted that the compensation schemes were designed to be ‘as postmaster-centric as possible’ and that discussions should remain confidential until a settlement is reached.
Feedback from some postmasters, according to the Post Office, had been that they value their privacy in these matters and had concerns about others in the community finding the amount of compensation they received.
The issue of imposing confidentiality clauses on victims – which may dissuade them from discussing their offers with others and stop them finding out if their offer is fair – was brought up during Post Office chief executive Nick Read’s appearance before the business select committee last month.
The compensation advisory board, made up of parliamentarians and academics, was understood to be alarmed at Read denying that non-disclosure agreements were not part of the settlement process, but then saying that settlements were subject to confidentiality.
The SRA states in its warning notice on inappropriate use of NDAs that they include any form of agreement or contract where it is established that certain information is kept confidential.
Read’s comments were forwarded to the SRA, with Hodges expressing concerns that the Post Office use of NDAs ‘may inhibit proper discussion and scrutiny of settlement in the SPM community’. The Post Office chief has since acknowledged he made an error when responding to the committee on this issue.
Hodges told Read last week: ‘Your reliance on legal argument to justify the ongoing practice on NDAs and legal terminology similarly does not impress us. We do not perceive demonstration of behaviour that is anything like a sympathetic understanding towards the people your organisation has harmed.’
The government has pledged that all victims with overturned convictions are eligible for a £600,000 fixed sum award, although some have opted to pursue higher amounts through legal representatives. Post Office minister Kevin Hollinrake said last week that of the 97 people with overturned convictions (a number growing regularly as appeals are heard in the Court of Appeal), 38 have accepted full and final compensation. A ‘significant majority’ of those, Hollinrake said, had taken the £600,000 sum.
Alan Bates, the former sub-postmaster whose experience formed the basis for the ITV drama Mr Bates v The Post Office, said last week he had turned down a ‘cruel’ compensation offer which was six times less than he requested and received 111 days after his claim was submitted.