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How far should a lawyer go?
And did the Post Office lawyers got too far?
The public inquiry into the Post Office IT scandal should be well worth watching here from 10 o’clock this morning.
Sir Wyn Williams, the chair, will hear oral evidence from Stephen Dilley, a partner at the law firm Womble Bond Dickinson in Bristol. Dilley acted for the Post Office in a civil claim it brought against a former subpostmaster for recovery of an alleged shortfall in the accounts of the post office he ran at Marine Drive, Bridlington.
In 2007, the High Court ordered Lee Castleton to pay the Post Office more than £25,000, plus £321,000 in costs. He was made bankrupt as a result.
Castleton, who could not afford legal representation in court, had argued that the Post Office’s Horizon IT system was unreliable. But Judge Havery QC concluded that
since Mr Castleton accepts the accuracy of his entries in the accounts and the correctness of the arithmetic, and since the logic of the system is correct, the conclusion is inescapable that the Horizon system was working properly in all material respects, and that the shortfall of £22,963.34 is real, not illusory.
It is now accepted by all that the Horizon system was deeply flawed. This week, the government said that every postmaster whose wrongful conviction relied on Horizon evidence would be offered a settlement of £600,000. So far, 86 criminal convictions have been overturned and £21 million has been paid in compensation to postmasters who were wrongly prosecuted.
We will ruin you
But Castleton faced one of the first civil claims linked to Horizon. The evening before his hearing opened in December 2006, he says that he and his father-in-law Alan encountered the Post Office lawyers:
In a moving witness statement to the public inquiry last year, Castleton described the effect on him and his family of the civil claim against him.
Womble Bond Dickinson denied that Dilley had spoken the words attributed to him by Castleton. A spokesperson said:
We strongly reject this accusation.
While the inquiry is under way it would be inappropriate to comment further.
Richard Morgan KC is to give evidence tomorrow.
In the Law Society Gazette, John Hyde has reported evidence given on Tuesday by Helen Rose, the unqualified auditor who had testified against Castleton in the High Court. There’s also an easy-to-follow transcript of her evidence on a very useful independent website.
Abuse of power?
Are there any limits to what lawyers should do in the interests of their clients? There clearly are — but where should we draw the line? That’s what interestswho’s professor of law and professional ethics at Exeter University.
In his Substack blog about the Post Office scandal, Moorhead predicted yesterday that this would be the week in which the inquiry began to grapple with the abuse of power by lawyers and their clients. I’m sure any allegations of improper behaviour will be firmly denied by the lawyers who give evidence today and tomorrow.
While we’re talking about topics they never taught you in law school, the Bar Standards Board has just published revised social media guidance for barristers — including “unregistered” barristers who don’t practise as such — as well as new guidance on the regulation of non-professional conduct. This has been welcomed by the Bar Council, the barristers’ representative body, which believes the regulator has struck the appropriate balance.
Here are some social media activities that may get barristers into trouble:
Posting material online that is dishonest.
Making comments that target a person or groups of people which are seriously offensive, discriminatory, harassing, threatening or bullying. This includes making comments which are of an indecent, obscene, or menacing character or which are gratuitously abusive. However, the use of foul language alone is unlikely to amount to a breach.
Sharing communications or hyperlinks to content posted by others which are seriously offensive… without making it clear that you disagree with the content.
Comments about judges, the judiciary, or the justice system which involve gratuitous attacks or serious criticisms that are misleading and do not have a sound factual basis.
Sending confidential communications to a client over social media in circumstances where confidentiality cannot be guaranteed or revealing one’s location on social media in a way that could link a barrister to a particular client.
Non-professional conduct is not the same as unprofessional conduct. It refers to conduct that does not occur during an individual’s professional activities as a barrister.
The closer the conduct gets to the barrister’s work, the more likely it is that the Bar Standards Board will take an interest in it. But the regulator says it is unlikely to have an interest in conduct by barristers that has little or no impact on their professional practices or on public trust and confidence in the profession. So that’s all right then.
Update 1530: As expected, Dilley denied threatening to ruin Castleton. John Hyde has written a comprehensive report of this morning’s hearing.
Update 22 September: Castleton’s counsel Flora Page will continue questioning Dilley at 0930 this morning. There is now a full transcript of yesterday’s hearing and Dilley’s witness statement has been published.
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