Alistair Bonnington: The ugly truth
The understandable furore over the malicious dishonesty of those involved in the prosecution, better word persecution, of innocent sub-postmasters by the once trusted Post Office seems to me merely one example of a wider malaise in our present society.
Like many bad-tempered old court lawyers, I have entertained myself in retirement by entering into dispute with utility companies, government bodies and the like when they seemed to me to be claiming payment from me unjustifiably. The damages which I have eventually been paid rather indicate that I have been in the right. The processes required are relatively simple for a lawyer, but completely beyond about 99 per cent of the public.
The thing which has astonished me is that almost all companies – many well known household names and government departments – are perfectly happy to use the technique of lying to try to reject my claims. They regularly pretend not to have received emails or letters. As I am old-fashioned enough to use recorded delivery service this lie is easily exposed. They will claim that the email address I used is no longer “active”, although it’s on their website and as we all know a forwarding link can easily be placed on the relevant email address if it were truly being replaced by a new address.
If what I have experienced is representative of the whole picture then the public is regularly defrauded in this way. It is clear to me that the instructions within these companies and government departments is to collect the money no matter what. Indeed as in the Post Office case they may be on commission or bonus for successful collection of sums that are not due.
Without access to legal assistance, almost everyone receiving false claims is without any real defence. We lawyers should remember that most citizens are understandably scared of threats to do diligence and the like against them. Naturally I wasn’t too worried about the numerous written threats from Capita plc, the BBC’s agents, threatening me with “an enforcement visit” to my home address on the basis that I didn’t hold a TV licence. An official looking spoof stamp was on the letter, for all the world looking as if a court had endorsed it. Of course I did hold a TV licence, but Capita ignored all emails and letters from me and continued with their intimidation programme.
As the Scottish government has eagerly pursued a policy of making our legal aid system inoperable by rendering much legal work unpaid and the rest absurdly badly paid, it is difficult to see how the honest but unwealthy citizen can resist such claims.
Democratic society is poisoned by dishonesty. It’s hardly a revelation to observe that the problem starts at the top with our elected leaders lying to us on almost a daily basis.
When I practised at Glasgow Sheriff Court we had the dubious accolade of being the busiest criminal court in Europe. That’s because Scotland had more criminals and more crime than anywhere else. So we have always had a problem with dishonesty which the legal profession has been able to ameliorate to some considerable degree.
The reaction of politicians to the Post Office scandal over the past 20 years or so demonstrates just how unconcerned they are about lying leading to gross injustice. The only thing which concerns them is adverse publicity, and so we have their sudden awakening, in the wake of the ITV programme.
I wish I had a solution. I fear I must close by saying no more than honesty seems to have gone out of fashion in many of the dealings the ordinary citizen has with the everyday world. We are a much poorer nation for that.