On our watch, our scandal

November 27, 2022

I try not to give advice, I try mostly to help people find their own way, rather than to follow mine. However, if there was one universal note I would give to any lawyer, anywhere in the world, it would be this:

“Never leave a meeting regretting what you did not say. Always leave a meeting wondering if what you did say could have been said better.” 

This is not a superficial nod in the direction of better comms; for me this goes to the very heart of our role. It is the existential essence of us.

To speak up when it is expedient to stay silent is neither easy nor always safe. To risk revealing our lack of understanding is courageous when negative judgements about us will be made in an instant. To stand aside from the cheer-leading momentum in the room and to ask “Are we sure? or “Yes, but” is hard. In doing so, we know we will look less than the team player or business partner that the easy clichés encourage us to be.

We all know our duty, but some people I meet lack a curiosity about their roles. They are breathtakingly clever for sure, and undeniably able and successful, but they are also strangely inert and un-noticing about how to make their difference more effectively. They seem to lean on their talent and rest. Other people I meet, clearly care deeply about their contribution, but feel overwhelmed by all that they are asked to do; and in so doing they lose sight of what it is that they must do. It is as if they are always swimming against the tide, with undercurrents of demand that may pull them under at any time.

We all know our duty, but for very different reasons, these lawyers may find that hindsight is a rather judgemental critic. I don’t want this to sound harsh or judgemental myself, but this is simply not good enough. Every lawyer knows what they must do in order to fulfil their duty.

Two weeks ago, I stood in an upstairs room of the Frontline Club in Paddington, London surrounded by super-heroes. Men and women, the victims of the Post Office Scandal, hugging each other, checking up on each other, listening to each other. Also in the room were many of the extraordinary  legal team that so diligently and courageously fought for their stories to be heard. The gathering was for the paperback launch of the updated “The Great Post Office Scandal” written by Nick Wallis.

One of the sub-postmasters, Vipin Patel, shared a little of his story. He told us of the awful and all too familiar accusations, and of his prosecution. He told us of the money he was accused of taking and of a life broken by the injustice. While we must never get used to hearing these stories, what has stayed with me was not the detail of the case against him, but how Vipin was so gentle, vulnerable and ordinary. Here was a man of soft tones, hesitant in the limelight, but full of dignity and sorrow. Here was a man who wasn’t sure what on Earth had happened to him; and someone who felt shame and anguish in a bewildered, helpless kind of way. He could have been my dad. He could have been your dad.

This is what is so unfathomable for me. I do not believe that any lawyer in the world who had met Vipin, who had heard him speak and saw his broken heart, could not have a question about his capacity to be dishonest or his capability to steal. Did no-one meet him, talk with him, hear him? Read about him? Wonder about him? Did the lawyers involved never ask the questions “Are we sure?” or “Yes, but?”

Did it never cross their minds in all the meetings that must have happened about his case that something might not be right?

“Never leave a meeting regretting what you did not say. Always leave a meeting wondering if what you did say could have been said better.” 

The tragedy of the Post Office Scandal is etched in the faces of the sub-postmasters and their families. It is an historic failure of our justice system, an historic failure of corporate governance and an historic failure of lawyers resting on their talent or perhaps just too busy to see.

The scandal is also mine and yours for every time we did not speak up or did not speak up well enough.

We must all own this if we are to live up to our duty, and not just live up to our privilege. We must all own this if it is not to be an abstract bad thing that happened to other people far, far away from our reality. We must all own this if people like Vipin are not to be persecuted by clever lawyers whose duty to their careers has become greater than their duty to justice.

It happened on our watch; this is our scandal.

The book “The Great Post Office Scandal” by Nick Wallis is now available in paperback from Bath Publishing. Please read it. Please pass it on. Please always speak up and speak well.

Take care. Paul xx

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