Post Office lawyer worried that openness would risk adverse publicity

A senior Post Office lawyer openly discussed balancing openness with the court with the need to maintain good press, the inquiry has heard.

Former head of communications Mark Davies appeared before the inquiry yesterday to answer questions that focused on the Post Office’s media relations strategy as the Horizon scandal grew larger.

He had regular interactions with lawyers over a number of topics, including the Post Office’s response to requests from sub-postmasters’ representatives who would form the Bates group litigation. They had asked for information about the Post Office’s knowledge about remote access to branch accounts.

The inquiry heard that in November 2016, general counsel Jane McLeod had emailed colleagues just before midnight with a draft response for claimant firm Freeths. McLeod said that following discussions with a QC and external lawyers Bond Dickinson, she proposed to say that Post Office may have made misleading statements in the past but that this was never deliberate.

She went on: ‘The challenge has been to balance the risk of adverse publicity ahead of the court process (Post Office’s concern) with the need to be open and transparent with the court.’

Davies, who was asked to assess the response to be given to Freeths, told the inquiry: ‘I don’t agree with that [McLeod’s point]. I think that the most important thing was that we were open and transparent with the court.’

The inquiry heard that managing the PR strategy in the build-up to the litigation was a key priority for the Post Office. Communications agency Portland was hired at a cost of £35,000 a month, but an internal Post Office said this arrangement had been ‘very expensive for questionable value’. The memo said that a replacement agency appointed in the run-up to the trial should have ‘less background knowledge and a fresh perspective’.

Asked whether the spending on external agencies was money well spent, Davies replied: ‘I think it was entirely appropriate.’

While lawyers would help to advise on PR strategy, Davies was asked for his input in the response to litigation letters ahead of the group action. One email showed that he was ‘not keen’ on a sentence to be given to claimant lawyers and suggested a rewording.

‘You aren’t a lawyer,’ inquiry counsel Julian Blake said, asking whether it was right for a communications director to be involved in wording that would be used in a legal capacity.

‘I don’t think it was inappropriate,’ replied Davies.

Earlier in the hearing, the inquiry got another sense of the extent to which lawyers were guided by the need to retain good publicity.

An email from former head of legal Hugh Flemington (who gave evidence last month) showed that in 2013 he was informing Davies about a forthcoming trial. Flemington wrote that it was an ‘important pr point’ that Post Office had disclosed to the judge about the existence of bugs in the Horizon system. Discussing the publication of the forensic accountant Second Sight report, Flemington asked Davies whether they could prepare an ‘on the offensive’ statement to go out the next week. He then set out a detailed list of points that the press release should include.

Davies said he was ‘not keen’ on the ‘offensive’ wording, adding: ‘I suspect he is suggesting we do a pro-active press release of some kind to set out what these issues are.’

The inquiry continues.


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