WITH all eyes on the UK Covid Inquiry and its succession of indiscreet WhatsApp messages, greasy self-justifications, political evasions and reputation laundering, it’s been an easy week to overlook a parallel investigation into another national scandal meriting our attention.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the Post Office scandal is the most widespread ­miscarriage of justice in British legal ­history. Despite this moniker, the story still hasn’t caught the popular or press ­imagination. I can’t fathom why.

Over 13 years, the Post Office pointed an accusing finger at more than 700 of its own postmasters, insisting they had their hands in the till, were cooking the books, or both.

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These allegations of dishonesty were based on the Post Office’s computing ­system – Horizon. Designed to track ­money coming in and money leaving branches across the country, Horizon didn’t work, ratcheting up fictional shortfalls, creating rather than capturing missing money.

Contractually, postmasters had also agreed to make good any identified losses. Every sundown, postmasters had to ­settle any outstanding shortfalls in order to open shop the next morning. The Post Office treated these phantom debts as sterling silver. Demands for repayment of these fictional sums followed. Many postmasters paid sometimes tens of thousands of pounds – sometimes by remortgaging their homes, sometimes in family loans – because they saw no other way of keeping trading.

The National: A sign at the Clayton Hotel in Belfast for the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry. A tax expert has said the Post Office should be “ended in its current form” following the scandal (Brian Lawless/PA)

In other cases, Post Office security goons and forensic auditors descended on ­branches, turfing postmasters out of their premises and setting up a skeleton staff of officials to keep the shop running while the internal auditors put the screws on the postmaster.

This change of personnel inevitably set a hundred hares running in the ­local ­community as gossip spread that your ­apparently friendly ­neighbourhood ­postmaster was not only in special ­measures, but under suspicion of creaming off the profits for themselves. In many cases, prosecutions, convictions and prison terms followed. In desperation, many pled guilty in the hopes of lenient treatment.

For years, the Post Office denied there were any issues with the reliability of ­Horizon. Known faults were not disclosed to criminal courts invited to convict ­postmasters of wrongdoing. In essence, they perverted the course of justice.

It is impossible to quantify the social disaster the Post Office visited on these men and women. They lost their livelihoods, their homes, their families, their ­society of friends, their reputations in their community. Money they had saved and invested evaporated. Their credit ­ratings tanked. Their children were daubed by the same sticky brush of dishonesty.

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In the fudging, ducking, and shirking department, Michael Gove and Matt Hancock have nothing on this week’s star witness to the Post Office ­Horizon Inquiry Jarnail Singh. As head of ­criminal law at the Post Office during the all-important Horizon years, Singh was centrally involved in the prosecution of sub-postmasters.

He was notionally an independent ­prosecutor with duties to have regard to basic principles of fairness, ­disclosure, ­impartiality, and due process. His ­evidence over two days last week suggests that these are just some of the ­professional obligations Singh had no insight into.

The solicitor represented himself to the inquiry as a terminal amnesiac who sent emails he didn’t believe in, for reasons he didn’t understand, expressing ideas he didn’t recognise, to people he didn’t know. To describe him as an unimpressive witness barely does this disgraceful performance justice.

Over two days, he denied the undeniable and pled ignorance of issues he must understand. In 2012 Singh sent ­celebratory word to senior managers ­reporting the good news that Seema Misra – a sub-postmistress then pregnant with her second child – had been convicted after trial. He reported that Misra’s case had “turned from a relatively straightforward ­general deficiency case to an unprecedented ­attack on the Horizon system” after her defence lawyers had dared question the integrity of the Post Office’s systems as an alternative explanation for the shortfalls.

Evidence showed Singh boasted – ­characteristically ungrammatically – to his colleagues that “we were able to ­destroy the criminal standard of proof ­every single suggestion made by the ­defence”. It is “to be hoped that the case will set a marker to dissuade” ­other ­postmasters “from jumping on the ­Horizon bashing bandwagon” in future.

The National: Post Office court case

His grim relish jumps off the page. Questioned about the content and tone of this message, Singh suggested that this email had been dictated to him, that he didn’t type it, that he didn’t know why he sent it, or who he was writing to, or why he was pushing the internal PR line that Horizon had triumphed against its critics. To describe this explanation as ­stretching credulity barely covers it.

In December 2013, Singh continued to describe postmasters who raised ­concerns about Horizon as “passing bandwagon” jumpers. He expressed the hope that “when we have a few wins ­under our belt” – by wins he means convictions – then “the Horizon challenges will melt away like midnight snow”.

This, I remind you, from a man who swore blind under oath he had no ­particular stake in maintaining the false appearance of infallibility around the Post Office computing systems, who mourned his prosecutions, who had a “two or three” days of grief after Seema Misra was locked up. Humbug.

Singh's evidence is emblematic of the low calibre of the staff who ­orchestrated this mass injustice. But it also highlighted important Scottish dimensions of this scandal which have been largely ­overlooked so far.

South of the Border, the Post Office was able to run its own private prosecution racket, resisting disclosure requests and running their own pet expert witnesses who knew about Horizon’s faults, but ­decided not to disclose them at trial.

In Scotland, different rules hold. Here, the Crown Office and Procurator ­Fiscal Service have a monopoly over ­criminal prosecutions. Here, there’s no legal ­presumption computer evidence is valid. Here, corroboration is needed to convict.

Did having independent prosecutors make any difference to Scots postmasters who fell under suspicion? Did distinctive Scottish rules of evidence act as any ­safeguard against miscarriages of justice?

Last week turned up the first scrap of evidence suggesting it might have done so. They were blink-and-you’ll-miss-it ­moments. First, counsel to the inquiry took a Post Office witness through a case outcome report they received from Scotland in December 2012. The allegation was “identified criminal loss” at a branch of the Post Office in the Gorbals. The supposedly “missing” funds amounted to £34,179. 

The disposal noted that the procurator fiscal “has decided not to proceed” explaining that “Angus Crawford PF cited issues with Horizon for not proceeding with this case.” This is the first evidence we’ve seen that Scottish prosecution authorities were alive to the reliability issues with Horizon as early as 2012.

There was also a significant Scottish ­angle to an update we now know Singh circulated to a post office about the “top five matters” currently preoccupying his team in 2014. In it, Singh discloses that he took a trip to Scotland along with the Post Office’s new external lawyers to meet the Procurator Fiscal, adding “this meeting was of utmost importance” as Scottish prosecutors “had concerns about the safety of prosecuting using Horizon data”.

In his characteristically broken prose, he explained that “this one-to-one meeting avoids unfortunate developments north of the Border could have adverse publicity” for Post Offence prosecutions in England and Wales – presumably by publicising the fact that Scottish prosecutors shared the emerging view that Horizon evidence was unreliable.

In the same email, Singh encouraged his lawyers to “develop their links” with the procurator fiscal, suggesting this would “benefit” the Post Office “for a number of reasons for example cutting down on the number of rejections by investigation officers to PFO and ensures more effectively communication”.

This might suggest a degree of frustration that Scottish prosecutors had been knocking back Horizon referrals – but it is impossible to say how often this happened or when it started.

This new evidence leaves us with ­other questions. Who did Singh meet here? Who prompted it? What was discussed? Was the procurator fiscal reassured about the reliability of the evidence or not? Did their practice change as a result? How many cases did the procurator fiscal decline to prosecute based on Horizon evidence? When did the doubts begin to creep in?

If the Post Office scandal has been neglected in the UK – then there’s been vanishingly little interest in the ­Scottish dimensional. Singh’s ­evidence last week suggests the Post Office – and Scottish prosecutors – have ­important questions to answer.