A probe into the lessons of the Post Office scandal for corporate governance, criminal justice and lawyer regulation has been launched.
The initial work of the Evidence Based Justice Lab at Exeter University is being funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, in-house lawyer consultancy LBC Wise Counsel and the university itself.
The lab is an interdisciplinary research group specialising in behavioural and data science research, and applying this research to the legal system and in legal arguments.
Professor Richard Moorhead, arguably the country’s leading academic on lawyers’ ethics, is on the team, along with miscarriages of justice specialist Rebecca Helm, who heads the lab, and Karen Noakes, who will focus on organisational culture and ethical behaviour.
Like Professor Moorhead, Ms Noakes is a non-practising solicitor. She is currently research fellow at Birmingham University and from September will be a lecturer in law at University College London.
After April’s Court of Appeal ruling that 39 former sub-postmasters were wrongly convicted of stealing money from the Post Office, there were calls for the Solicitors Regulation Authority to investigate all of the lawyers acting for the Post Office.
The research group said the case “offers a seminal opportunity to examine important issues in corporate governance, criminal justice and professional regulation, as well as government and parliamentary accountability.
“The outpouring of concern that the scandal has prompted reveals a desire for change which needs to be maintained and harnessed.”
It will work to ensure that identified concerns “are taken seriously by regulators, policy makers and others able to affect change”.
The group went on: “As lawyers and legal educators, we want to ensure lawyers and law students hear the stories of the victims and learn about their mistreatment, but we also want to see rules and practices change, where appropriate, to make unethical behaviour less likely to happen in the first place and more likely to be punished when it does.”
Professor Moorhead told Legal Futures: “The questions raised by this case include allegations of: recklessly bad contract management; oppressive enforcement practices; excessive litigation tactics relying on misleading and, to use a phrase from the Berenovsky litigation, polished evidence; failures to disclose evidence in ways which breached prosecutorial ethics; decisions about whether and how to prosecute in breach of a prosecutorial obligations; conflicts of interest; a potential breach of undertaking; the misleading of civil and criminal courts; and the abuse of legal professional privilege.
“The allegations touch in-house and private practice. They raise profound questions about the quality of our justice system, our criminal justice system in particular.
“And they raise really important questions about how lawyers and large organisations come unstuck when aggressively managing risk and reputations. Whatever the answers to those questions are, it is vitally important that they are posed and explored.”
The plan initially is to review the existing evidence and produce a full submission to the inquiry into the scandal headed by former High Court judge Sir Wyn Williams, as well as lawyers’ regulators.
This will detail the group’s preliminary views on the issues arising in the case and “begin to suggest areas of reform for criminal justice, professional regulation, corporate governance, and governmental accountability and work on how to change the behaviours and cultures that led to such injustice”.