Mr Bates Vs The Post Office brought a tear to many an eye as the hit ITV drama highlighted one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in UK history.
For Yorkshire lawyer Stephen Lewis it was particularly poignant as it underlined five years of his career devoted to fighting for justice and compensation for 50 individual subpostmasters, including one featured in the programme.
Speaking during a video call from his home in Ilkley, the newly-appointed litigation partner at Schofield Sweeney, says: “Even though it was a dramatisation of what happened, I found it quite upsetting.”
The Post Office Horizon Scandal saw hundreds of innocent staff wrongly accused of theft, fraud and false accounting due to a defective computer system called Horizon.
Families were torn apart, livelihoods lost, people were imprisoned and even committed suicide due to the intense pressure put upon them by the Post Office, which denied there was anything wrong with the system and blamed the users.
Lewis says he first became aware of the problems subpostmasters were facing about 10 years ago while working for the Leeds office of Freeths alongside James Hartley – the lawyer who led the legal team that represented 555 postmasters in the landmark group claim against the government-owned Post Office Limited in the High Court.
Lewis, who worked in the same team but not on the case, kept a close eye on the updates and developments during the legal process.
By the time the High Court ruled in favour of the subpostmasters in 2019, Lewis had moved on to Ward Hadaway in Leeds but the victory triggered the next phase of the battle, seeking justice and compensation for subpostmasters affected by the scandal.
“It became clear that Freeths weren’t able to act in pursuance of claims for other subpostmasters that were outside of the action that had been brought in the High Court,” he says. “It prompted me to start talking to key influencers and commentators to let them know that I was available to support anybody who was in a similar position.”
Lewis was approached by a number of those affected. One of his cases involved a subpostmaster who had committed suicide. Another received over £1m in compensation.
Now the ITV drama has prompted a new wave of cases.
“There’s a whole host of other people out there who, over the years, have tried to mentally bury it and the ITV drama has brought it, not only to the public conscience but also back to their minds,” Lewis says.
He has had a number of new people coming forward and is keen to act for other victims. “The people I’ve spoken to have said the drama gave them the strength to contact me to see if I can help them with the losses they’ve suffered,” he says.
He added: “And there are still probably hundreds, if not thousands, of subpostmasters and former subpostmasters out there who are eligible for compensation and may not have yet done something about it.”
Following the ITV drama, the Government committed to new legislation to quash subpostmasters’ convictions en masse and promised over £1bn towards the financial redress of victims. There is also an ongoing public inquiry.
“The developments are welcome,” says Lewis. “But as a lawyer you have to be cautious about how effective this is going to be, how it’ll speed up the acquittal of people and how much compensation they will receive.”
He adds: “It’s the same old story. Hundreds of interviews and newspaper articles haven’t collectively made the Government do anything. There are a number of prominent MPs who have been campaigning for years but it takes people pretending to be subpostmasters on an ITV drama to prick the public consciousness and actually get the government to start taking action. It’s obviously disappointing but encouraging that things are finally moving forward.”
A key question on everyone’s minds is whether anyone will be brought to justice for the scandal. “I certainly hope so,” says Lewis. “Because there are a number of individuals and organisations who should be brought to justice because of it. The concern is that, for whatever reason, the people who should be brought to book may find themselves off the hook but I certainly hope that’s not the case.”
Lewis was raised in Dronfield, North Derbyshire in the 1970s and 1980s, but said his father insisted he was born in Sheffield so he could play for Yorkshire County Cricket. “My interest and playing level has probably been a constant disappointment to my dad,” he adds wryly.
After studying law at Aberystwyth, he initially worked at a costs draughtsman which sparked an interest in litigation. Since then he has worked at law firms in Manchester and Leeds.
Lewis now lives in Ilkley with his partner, Sue. They have two working cocker spaniels and spend weekends outside on the moors and in the Dales.
He describes himself as personable, approachable and someone who doesn’t take himself too seriously, although he quickly added that he takes the work seriously.
Although Lewis has devoted a large part of the last five years acting for subpostmasters – something he is keen to continue – he has over 25 years of experience resolving issues and disputes for all sizes of businesses and private individuals.
He is clearly delighted to have started 2024 with a new role at Leeds-based Schofield Sweeney where, aside from the Post Office scandal, his specialisms will include commercial and contract disputes, material damage, product liability, professional risks, insurance policy disputes and volume damage recovery programmes for highways infrastructure, buildings and vehicles.
“I’ve had a really warm welcome and everyone’s been enormously supportive,” he says.