"We've replaced the lawyers, now to replace Jess with this new cat..."
The Post Office has dropped Herbert Smith Freehills as its lawyers for the ongoing Horizon IT Inquiry and appointed Burges Salmon and Fieldfisher instead.
HSF "will continue to assist on other matters including the administration of the Historical Shortfall Scheme," the Post Office confirmed in a statement.
The Post Office said that it decided in January this year that a new law firm should be appointed "following careful consideration that began last year". The Post Office carried out "a competitive tender exercise" to find a new firm to replace the litigation powerhouse.
The Horizon IT scandal centres around the Post Office publicly insisting for years that accounting discrepancies in its branches were due to thieving sub-postmasters. In fact the errors were caused by its defective IT system, Horizon.
Innocent sub-postmasters suffered bankruptcy, accusations of criminality, imprisonment, and divorce as a result of the Post Office’s cover up, with some taking their own lives.
Regarded as the largest miscarriage of justice in British legal history, a pivotal moment saw the Post Office seek to remove the judge, Mr Justice Fraser, who ruled against it in a last-ditch attempt to stave off confirmation of its wrongdoing, by accusing him of bias.
At a recent hearing for the ongoing inquiry, barrister Edward Henry KC, acting for a group of subpostmasters, accused HSF of advising on the recusal application and was therefore conflicted in its role in also acting on the historical shortfalls compensation scheme.
Henry said the attempt to usurp Mr Justice Fraser was a “massively aggravating feature of this campaign of wrongful conviction” in which the Post Office was “aided, advised, assisted and dare I say abetted by Herbert Smith Freehills”.
“HSF wasn't a new broom - HSF was part of the problem. It was, as it were, an oily rag that tried to tarnish the reputation of the judge”, said Henry.
He called the firm's continued involvement in administering compensation schemes for victims of the Post Office's conduct “untenable” as a result, and a “hopeless conflict”.
“Here you have Herbert Smith advising on recusal, advising the Post Office and witnesses in respect of this inquiry”, and “also supervising certain of the compensation schemes”, he said.
“If they cannot see that it is a conflict then one respectfully submits they are so purblind that it's even more dangerous”, alleged Henry.
In response, a Post Office spokesperson told RollOnFriday: “At that hearing Kate Gallafent KC set out the factual timeline in relation to Post Office’s instruction of HSF and confirmed that they were not the firm who advised on making the recusal application.”
Dan Neidle (the ex-CC partner who triggered an ethics investigation of Nadhim Zahawi) has also criticised the Post Office of an unethical attempt to silence postmasters receiving offers through the compensation scheme, by sending 'without prejudice' letters.
The former head of tax at CC has referred the Post Office to the SRA over the letters, and requested that the regulator also check if HSF was involved too.
A Post Office spokesperson told RollOnFriday: “Offer letters are marked ‘without prejudice’ but this does not in any way prohibit postmasters from seeking independent advice on their offer and this is clearly explained in the letter".
"Each postmaster is also rightly given the option of disputing their offer," the spokesperson added. "Post Office will again cover the costs of legal representation for the dispute process and provide an interim payment of up to 80% of the proposed settlement.”
The SRA confirmed last year that it is investigating the role of law firms in the scandal.