There has been some rank incompetence on display from various Post Office witnesses over the course of this inquiry, but I think we’ll have to go some way to find a worse performance than this.
We know from the witnesses during Bates v Post Office and the Inquiry evidence we’ve heard over most of 2023 that the Post Office is stuffed to the gills with lifers, plodders and gormless apparatchiks inexplicably promoted into positions way beyond their ability. Unlike most of them, Jarnail Singh did not rise to middle-management after starting his career as a counter clerk or a postie. He is a lawyer, and was once the Post Office’s Head of Criminal Law, making life-changing decisions about Subpostmasters, based on his 16+ years of experience working in the Post Office’s prosecution department.
Giving evidence over two full days, Singh revealed himself to be an exceptionally dangerous man, inhabiting a fantasy world manufactured by a priceless combination of the Peter Principle and the Dunning-Kruger effect. He was also self-defeatingly slippery to such a degree that when he was asked if he was the Head of Criminal Law at the Post Office, his answer was:
“I wasn’t head of anything, to be honest with you. I just went in as a challenge, as an opportunity and I can reassure you I was not Head of Criminal Law. I think the outside world did, probably did [think I was], because I was the only criminal lawyer and I think originally they wanted Rob Wilson to go in, and at the last minute he dropped out, and I was put forward and I think in the last minute, in the last… I think this post was on 1 April 2012 and I think I was more or less told the end of March, probably the middle of March, “Do you want it?” And I considered it, went to see Cartwright King, I liked it and I knew it would be tough, so I took that opportunity as a challenge and that’s what I did.”
In 2012, Mr Singh took over from Rob Wilson, the Post Office’s Head of Criminal Law when the Post Office split with Royal Mail in 2012. Wilson went to Royal Mail and Singh was left as the only senior lawyer in the department. He may not have had the title Head of Criminal Law, but he was, in all respects, its head of criminal law. Many of Singh’s answers were like this – forthright denial of something, followed by obfuscatory guff and then an oblique admission or, more usually, a change of subject.
A glittering career
Singh joined the Post Office as a legal executive in 1989 in the conveyancing department. He passed his Law Society finals whilst working at the Post Office and was admitted as a lawyer in December 1992. In September 1993 Singh transferred to the Post Office’s litigation department, working first on civil litigation. He became a Post Office senior criminal lawyer in 1995, when he transferred to the Prosecutions Department.
At the time the Post Office prosecutions department had eight senior lawyers, and, according to Singh, “three or four legal executives, three or four admin staff, and four or five secretaries.” This was all overseen by a Head of Criminal Law.
Jason Beer KC, the barrister asking questions on behalf of the Inquiry, took Singh to his witness statement. Singh had stated he was “the” senior lawyer on the criminal law team.
“No, well, maybe “the” needs to come out”, replied Singh, simultaneously admitting the inaccuracy and suggesting a correction which didn’t make sense. It set a standard for coherency which Singh maintained for the rest of the day.
Singh was intially line-managed by two Heads of Criminal Law. First was Mike Heath, then the hapless Rob Wilson until the Royal Mail split from the Post Office in 2012. Thereafter Singh somehow found himself head of an empty department, the only lawyer in the Post Office’s criminal law team, working with Hugh Flemington, the Head of Legal and Susan Crichton, the General Counsel. Singh called Crichton “a lovely lady, and Hugh, we got on really well. As and when we needed it, needed them to discuss matters, I did.”
Singh says he complained to them about his workload, and this, he claims, is how most of the Post Office’s prosecution function came to be outsourced to a legal firm called Cartright King. But the Post Office still needed Singh to sign off on prosecutions at their end.
Whilst at the Post Office, Jarnail Singh presided over the prosecution of a number of innocent Subpostmasters. When Jason Beer pointed out that his witness statement failed to “accept any personal responsibility for any mistakes made”, Singh replied with what I am sure will become an apology for the ages, and is worth repeating in full:
Singh: Well, obviously, I… I’m very grieved… Beer: That’s a different issue. Singh: …and I’m embarrassed and sorry. I mean I think maybe we ought to start by me apologising directly to the Subpostmasters. Obviously, I do, you know, feel their pain and hurt and I can feel the same. And I don’t… I’ve never met any of them. My basically employment of job entailed, or my role entailed the paperwork I received, I assessed it in line with the law, the evidence, the public interest, and whether it was appropriate for charges to go before the courts. So, in that respect, you know… I didn’t [do] the complete job, I didn’t do the investigations, I didn’t know anything about Horizon in the sense about how it operated had a witness statement to actually explain and then we had the barristers in turn to approve it, and then it went before the judge to deal with the enforcement side of things, if it needed. So, in that respect, of course I feel very upset and aggrieved that it had gone so far, because the whole idea of becoming a lawyer wasn’t to do any wrong, and I certainly… the… I didn’t want to be here today. I wanted to enjoy a long legal career within the Post Office and whoever, and now to carry on doing the next stage of my life.
The incoherence continued. Beer asked if Singh’s witness statement sought to create the impression of a diligent lawyer:
“acting with the utmost professionalism at all times, but of sorrow and being hurt after the event because, if only you had known about Horizon, everything would have been very different?”
“Absolutely not. I am not that sort of person. It’s not the way… you made me come across wrong. I take full responsibility for the… you know, the hurt and the sorrow people [unclear] and I think… I was actually going to actually apologise to Julian Wilson’s family, seeing that he’s not here to see that his good name has been put intact and things have been put right.”
Julian Wilson was prosecuted and convicted on Singh’s watch. He died in 2016. His conviction was quashed in 2021. I very much doubt that means “things have been put right”, but hey, Jarnail, you go ahead and nearly apologise to his family.
During his evidence, Singh said it “hurt” to prosecute Subpostmasters because of the anguish he knew it caused them. Beer took him to an infamous email written by Singh on 21 October 2010, a day after the conviction of Seema Misra, whose husband first introduced me to this story. The email is called Attack on Horizon. In it, Singh writes:
“We were beset with unparallel degree of disclosure requests by the Defence. Through the hard work of everyone, Counsel Warwick Tatford, Investigation Officer, Jon Longman and through the considerable expertise of Gareth Jenkins of Fujitsu we were able to destroy to the criminal standard of proof (beyond all reasonable doubt) every single suggestion made by the Defence. It is to be hoped the case will set a marker to dissuade other Defendants from jumping on the Horizon bashing bandwagon.”
In his witness statement, Singh said he had input from a barrister on how to word the statement, and that he was instructed to write it. He couldn’t say how the barrister had helped him word the statement, and when asked who instructed him to write it, he named Phil Taylor, one of the legal execs in his department. The email is sent to senior lawyers and investigators within the Post Office, including General Counsel Susan Crichton. During his evidence, Singh claims he was given a distribution list, and didn’t choose the people it was sent to, suggesting “I don’t know any of them.” Beer seemed bemused by this, but let it pass. Then he asked:
Beer: So… if you didn’t pick the distribution list, you picked the subject title of the email? Singh: I don’t know… Beer: You…? Singh: Well… Beer: Or was that dictated to you? Singh: If there is… it was dictated to me.
Singh was unable to say who dictated it to him. Beer suggested he viewed the Misra case as an attack on Horizon, so giving the email such a title “would come naturally” to him.
“Absolutely not,” replied Singh. Beer asked him if he didn’t who did view it as an attack on Horizon? Singh swore blind he did not know. “So you’re typing an email…” “I didn’t type it.” Singh countered.
Beer took stock. Singh had been told to write an email, headed with a title he didn’t agree with dictated to him by someone he couldn’t remember, which he didn’t actually type and then sent to a distribution list of people he didn’t know.
“Is that where we’ve got to?” asked Beer, a little incredulously. “I don’t know whether it’s an attack on Horizon. I’ve got no stake in Horizon, I don’t even know how it operated or anything of that nature.” replied Singh, before going off on a long ramble about the Misra case. Beer eventually interrupted him.
“So the man that dictated the email that says Attack on Horizon is the wrong person to ask why the case was viewed as an attack on Horizon? Is that where we’ve got to, Mr Singh?” Singh replied “I think so”, before launching into another ramble.
By this stage Beer was under no illusion he had an idiot on his hands, but one who had a natural ability deflect and obfuscate everything which came his way. Beer gave Singh a few more bites of the cherry before trying to nail him down:
Beer: Did somebody else type an email which you cut and pasted into this one? Singh: No, no, no. Beer: No. Okay, hold on… Singh: They dictated it. Beer: Who dictated it? Singh: I don’t know. I mean I don’t know, there was probably various people over… Beer: So, a collection of people? Singh: Probably, yes, and I think it was approved by… Beer: Who are the possible candidates for dictating your email? Singh: It was… this wording was approved by Robert Wilson, Rob Wilson, Head of the Criminal Law Team. […] Beer: So you said it was approved by him? Singh: Yes. Beer: Was he one of the dictators? Singh: I don’t know whether he did or not. To be honest with you… to be honest, I… I’m not here to name names. I mean … Beer: I think you just did. Singh: I did, because… Beer: Because I asked you? Singh: Yes. You asked me and I am here to assist and help.
Unfortunately Jarnail Singh could only provide help in the same way a cat can help you write an email. Shortly after sending his dictated message, Seema Misra was sentenced to nine months in custody. Of this, Singh says:
“To hear that she was sentenced to prison sort of hurt me quite badly. I mean, for two or three days.”
Poor bloke. Two or three whole days. Then what? Beer wondered if the language in Singh’s email was “indicative… of a degraded and debased prosecutorial culture within your office?”
Singh replied: “No. No, I wouldn’t. Look, Mr Beer it’s your job to ask that but it’s not, no.”
Beer tried again: “The last paragraph where you say: “It is to be hoped that the case will set a marker to dissuade from jumping on the Horizon bashing bandwagon”, who within the Post Office held that hope?”
“Well, certainly not the Criminal Law Team. Certainly, I didn’t.” said Singh, looking at the words which had been dictated to him and which he had dictated and bore his name which he didn’t believe.
Who did hold that hope, wondered Beer?
“Well, whoever dealt with the case,” replied Singh, who dealt with the case.
Singh continued to go off on long perorations about how upsetting prosecuting people was, claiming at one point that he couldn’t have done it if he’d “had to go to court and actually physically see these people, then I wouldn’t be able to do the job.”
Luckily for him, the ruining of peoples’ lives “was a paper exercise” which made things much easier.
Beer asked a final question on the topic, suggesting the attitude and the language of the Attack on Horizon email was entirely at odds with his professional duties.
Singh: Well, I… well, look, in hindsight, you can say all sorts of things. The thing is… Beer: Well, I’m saying that and I’m asking you the question. Singh: Well, I don’t know what… are you asking me to… what are you asking me? Please ask me.
Beer tried again, eventually getting the admission that “of course” Singh’s email was at odds with Singh’s professional duties. “Of course it is,” said Singh, who then began to complain about Beer’s line of questioning, stating:
“I am just sort of feeling so aggrieved that you’re asking me this because that’s not the idea of… you know, it was a challenge to qualify as a lawyer and I don’t… the last thing I wanted to finish this off was something like that.”
Singh was taken to a December 2013 email. This was five months after the Clarke Advice had been issued by Simon Clarke of Cartwright King, calling into question all Post Office prosecutions on the basis of Horizon evidence. All Post Office prosecutions had been stopped. Singh wrote:
“Any case begun now will attract some type of Horizon issue because this is the passing bandwagon people are jumping on. When we have a few wins under our belt the Horizon challenges will melt away like midnight snow.”
Beer asked Singh why he formed that view – that Horizon was a “passing bandwagon”. Singh replied:
“I don’t know. I had… it’s a sort of… this isn’t just one person, this… we worked as a team, because there was so much going on, it was a team effort team view. It wasn’t a decision made by me. It was a decision by people working on it, and not only internally but externally. They were people with a lot of experience in this type of work. So this is not a personal view. It was the view, the general view, put in that… put in that answer.”
Beer pointed out that it was Singh’s email. Singh agreed, but responded that “we worked as a team.”
Beer wondered: “Did someone dictate this email to you?
“Possibly.” Singh replied.
It was what it was
And so it went on. Singh couldn’t explain why he’d written what he’d written, but absolutely denied it was because it was he didn’t have a justification for the crassness of the email. It was not that. It was just that he was “struggling in the sense that I can’t explain to what happened in the year 2013, and we’re in the year 2023, on to ’24. At that time, you know, the situation was what it was.”
Singh then came up with the suggestion that he might actually have been more wronged than the Subpostmasters he prosecuted, saying: “I feel aggrieved about it as much as they do, probably… even more, because I was in a position to do something and I didn’t.”
Which is, I think, a bold claim.
I am looking forward to seeing what action the Solicitors Regulation Authority decides to take in the light of Singh’s evidence.
One correspondent wrote:
“Mr Singh is clearly as mad as a three-cornered bat. The fact that he has held a senior position at the Post Office for most of his working life tells us something. If we didn’t know it already.”
Another said “Jaw dropping. Hard to tell where the stupidity ends and the malice begins.”
If you have ten hours to waste, I do suggest watching the two days Singh spent on the stand. And please do leave a comment below. I’d be interested to know how you reacted.
Thanks to secret emailer Nigel Derby for his help with this piece.
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Text: Nick Wallis, ©2023. Stills: The Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry, The Wilson Family, Nick Wallis. No text or images can be reproduced without the express permission of the copyright holders.