|Alan Bates from the JFSA (l) and Sir Wyn Williams (r)|
The Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance may have inched closer to participating in the Post Office Horizon Inquiry - but there's still one big red line stopping them from getting involved.
Over the weekend, Alan Bates, founder of the JFSA, sent a note to his mailing list, telling members about his "introductory" meeting on Thursday last week with Sir Wyn Williams, the former High Court judge who is chairing the inquiry. The (remote) meeting was also attended by Kay Linnell, a forensic accountant who has advised the JFSA for more than a decade, David Enright, a partner at Howe and Co solicitors and Sam Stein QC, who we recently saw in action representing a number of Subpostmasters at the Court of Appeal.
Mr Bates says the JFSA's participation in the inquiry remains dependent on the issue of compensation, telling members:
"If, as with the original review, the issue of compensation is specifically excluded then it is pointless us taking part, every other issue is secondary to what we are rightfully owed and which has been taken from us."
Sir Wyn apparently made no promises. According to Mr Bates, Sir Wyn:
"stated that he would be preparing a Statement of Approach No 4 which will probably be available in 14 days once key participants have made submissions to him regarding their view of what path the Inquiry should follow. Be assured our legal team will be making a submission, as no doubt will those of POL [Post Office Ltd] and BEIS [the government Business ministry which technically "owns" the Post Office on our behalf]."
Remember last year a senior government source told me civil servants within government didn't want any sort of review or inquiry at all - "they wanted it all to go away".
According to Mr Bates' reading of the inquiry's new powers, Sir Wyn can address at any issue surrounding the scandal he deems important. Mr Bates told his members: "one comment I do recall from the meeting with him is that he hopes to do so ‘Reasonably, Sensibly and Proportionally’."
Whilst the JFSA's position has not formally changed, it seems as if last Thursday's whites-of-their-eyes meeting at least persuaded Mr Bates and his advisors to keep talking, for now.
And if Statement of Approach Number 4 delivers the goods, the JFSA could well be in. In fact, in his note, Mr Bates suggests his members might want to contact Howe and Co in order to be ready to apply for core participant status to the inquiry.
To help them do that, added to the JFSA note is an FAQ from Howe and Co. It is also immensely helpful for any lay person wondering exactly how statutory inquiries operate.
I have reprinted the FAQ below and included the email address for Howe and Co at the bottom of this post, should anyone reading this think they might want Howe and Co to look after their application to be a core participant. As with everything of this nature, this website does not recommend one course of action over another, it just reports it. Other law firms are available.
Howe and Co's FAQ, via a recent JFSA newsletter:
• What is a Statutory Inquiry?
A Statutory Inquiry, simply, is a powerful form of public inquiry, established under the Inquiries Act 2005, and operates under the rules set out in that Act.
A Public Inquiry is a way of independently assessing the facts, events and circumstances which gave rise to a particular failure or problem. They also examine the background of that failure, and make recommendations about how bodies or organisations can improve their performance or prevent a failure or problem from reoccurring. A public inquiry will investigate key issues, taking into account evidence from the documents and witnesses to the facts.
A statutory public inquiry, as opposed to a government review or non-statutory inquiry, is a more formal process (with set legal rules about evidence and witnesses, for example).
• What are core participants?
A core participant is an individual, organisation or institution that has a specific interest in the topics to which the Inquiry relates. They have specific rights and roles as set out in law. Core participants have special rights in the Inquiry process.
Core participants' special rights include receiving early disclosure of documentation, including documents not made public, being legally represented and making legal submissions to the Chair, suggesting lines of questions to witnesses, suggesting evidence to be obtained, and receiving advance notice of the Inquiry's report(s).
It is not necessary to be a core participant in order to provide evidence to the Inquiry.
The Inquiry's Chair will decide who can be designated as a core participant, based on the applications made to him. He makes decisions according to legally-defined rules, but has wide discretion and can take a large number of factors into account.
• What is the role of Sir Wyn Williams?
Sir Wyn Williams is the Chair of the Inquiry. Sir Wyn retired from his role as a High Court judge in 2017 and has undertaken a number of similar judicial and legal roles since his retirement. In conjunction with the Inquiry's dedicated lawyers, he will be the head of the investigation and will be responsible for the procedures of the Inquiry and responsible for drafting its report(s). The Chair's role is comparable to a judge in a legal case, but with a duty to properly and fully investigate the issues to which the inquiry relates.
The Chair of an inquiry is responsible for making key decisions on the setting up and operation of an inquiry. Those decisions relate to:
an inquiry's procedural rules; the granting of core participant status to individuals and organisations; which witnesses to call; requiring that documents be disclosed to the inquiry; finance and timetables of the inquiry; and recommendations, and interim recommendations.
The Chair will also be involved in the selection and appointment of panel members (see below).
• Who are the Chair's panel, and how are they selected?
We do not yet know who may be appointed to the panel. The Inquiries Act 2005 permits an inquiry to sit with a panel. The JFSA can make representations to the Chair as to who panel members should be.
Whilst the decision on panel members ultimately a decision for the government minister, that minister is under a legal duty to consult with the Chair on panel members' appointment.
The Prime Minister withdrew a proposal to appoint a panel member to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, after Howe & Co objected on behalf of their core participant clients about the panel member's professional history, Now, the Grenfell Tower inquiry's panel contains an architect and health and safety practitioner, as well as a panel member with experience in social housing and local government.
• What are the powers of the Statutory Inquiry?
One of the most significant advantages of a statutory inquiry over a non-statutory inquiry are the powers that are granted to it.
A statutory inquiry has the ability to compel witnesses to attend and give evidence, as well as power to require a company, body, individual or institution to provide documents to it. A non-statutory inquiry has no powers to compel anyone unwilling to comply or engage with it.
A statutory Inquiry can commence criminal action again any person or organisation that refuses to cooperate with it.