The Bleatings of a Sorry Scapegoat: Lady Susan’s Pity Party

Susan Crichton

Susan Crichton cut a sorry figure at the Inquiry today. A woman apparently trying to do the right thing, but not trying hard enough. A woman whose stated intentions were not borne out (and occasionally downright contradicted) by the documentary evidence. A woman who came up against a company board more interested in reputation management than the truth, and who, instead of raising the alarm, imploded and walked away.

If you want to read it blow-by-blow, with added documentary evidence, you can, here, on a formatted tweet thread in the live tweets section of this website.

I find it difficult to have sympathy for Crichton. She wanted to do the right thing, which was manage the delivery of Second Sight’s independent (Interim) report, and to some degree she succeeded. She also colluded with her client, the Post Office, to change the language both in the Interim Report (a late draft was considered too “emotional”) and around it (Second Sight – and Fujitsu’s – references to “bugs” were regurgitated by her in external and internal Post Office comms at the suggestion of CEO Paula Vennells’ husband as “exceptions” or “anomalies”). Crichton even sought, on behalf of the Post Office, advice on whether Second Sight could be sued for defamation, or whether the Post Office could injunct their report.

Some time ago I spoke to Second Sight’s Ron Warmington about Crichton and whilst he admitted being “perplexed and puzzled” by her ten year silence on leaving the Post Office in 2013, he maintains she was “one of the few people with integrity” within the Post Office. According to Ron, she pushed for an independent investigation, and once Second Sight had been selected she “did what she could” to “protect” them from the malign forces within the Post Office trying to shut them down.

His word carries far more weight than mine, but from her evidence today, it seems Crichton was also far less interested in what had happened to the Subpostmasters than she was about her own career. Once Alice Perkins (the Post Office chair) had decided to make her a scapegoat for failing to manage the Second Sight report into something more palatable, Crichton got out as quickly as she could. She then sat on what she knew without (as far as we know) doing anything to bring the plight of the Subpostmasters to light publicly, or privately. I find this surprising, if not reprehensible. She had experienced the Post Office’s mafia culture first hand and come off worse, but unlike the Subpostmasters, she got away with a tidy settlement and her reputation intact.

I would like to have asked Ron what he made of Crichton’s evidence, but he’s in purdah, awaiting his own evidence session on 18 June.

The board want to sack Second Sight

Second Sight’s Interim Report was issued on 8 July 2013. Two days later a Bond Dickinson lawyer attending a meeting with Crichton notes that “The board want to sack SS [Second Sight] and of course are now not coping well with the fact that they are independent.”

The lawyer, Simon Richardson, also notices:

“There was generally an overall defensive air and the board are also feeling bruised. There are tensions between people and that includes Alice Perkins (the Chair), Paula Vennells (CEO) and SC [Crichton].”

When asked why, Crichton told the Inquiry that she felt she was being accused of “not managing the process properly” – ie failing to get the independent investigators deliver the result the Post Office wanted.

We are then taken to the minutes of a Post Office board meeting on 16 July 2013, during which Crichton stood outside waiting to deliver her findings into the fallout from the Second Sight report. At Alice Perkins’ request, she was not invited in. Paula Vennells delivered the findings instead. Crichton is informed by Alwen Lyons, the Company Secretary, that she is no longer required. She is humiliated. It is the beginning of her end.

Perkins takes aim

The Inquiry was taken to a note of a meeting between Crichton and Perkins made by Perkins. Perkins tells Crichton:

“the Second Sight interim report and the timing of its publication had been potentially very serious indeed for the Post Office in terms of our national reputation and the effect it could have on our funding negotiations with the Government. In the event, it had not come out so badly partly because of the way the Minister had handled her statement in the House of Commons. But it had been very worrying at the time.”

Perkins note continues:

“I understood that Second Sight’s investigation had to be independent but in the civil service there would have been someone marking it who was close to all the key people (SS, JA [James Arbuthnot], JFSA [Alan Bates’ Justice for Subpostmasters’ Alliance]) and knew what was going on between them.”

Perkins also blames Crichton for getting Second Sight appointed, despite Crichton stepping back from that process because she knew Second Sight MD Ron Warmington from working with him at General Electric.

Second Sight’s reward for getting their report over the line is outlined in an internal email from Perkins to many of the senior leaders within the Post Office on 31 July 2013 which states:

“while it is clear that we are committed to using SS for the 47 [Subpostmaster] cases which are already in the frame for their review, it is extremely important that we cap their involvement at that. The moment they are involved in additional cases beyond these, we will have lost the ability to end the relationship with them – an outcome which I do not want to have to contemplate.”

So much for her commitment to the truth, or indeed any concern for the Subpostmasters.

The inquiry then dwelt on Crichton’s highly confused handling of the Shredding Advice and her inability to properly explain away the actions and emails of her direct report John Scott, who allegedly issued an order to shred minutes of a Horizon issues meeting after Crichton allegedly said she wanted to keep things below the radar.

Yelling at Paula Vennells in a Costa

Finally we came to an extraordinary document made by Paula Vennells detailing two meetings she had with Crichton. In the first, Vennells meets Crichton on what is documented as 30 Sep 2013, but which Crichton and counsel to the Inquiry Julian Blake agree must be 30 August 2013. The two execs are in a Costa Coffee in Old Street. Vennells says she discusses the need to “right the wrong” of Crichton’s actions.

Crichton was apparently “very very angry. She yelled at me” reports Vennells. The anger stems from Vennells’ failure to send Crichton the terms of reference for an internal “lessons learned” review, presumably set up to ensure no-one at the Post Office inadvertently lets the truth out of the bag ever again. Crichton felt again she was being scapegoated for “not managing the process properly”, that is, letting Second Sight do their jobs. Vennells writes:

“She shouted that she was looking at other jobs. She threatened that we would have to back her – implying the importance of references.”

It doesn’t sound pretty. Crichton claims no recollection of the meeting at all, but says the behaviour described is out of character, especially in a public place.

There follows Vennells’ killer paragraph:

“My reflection on what happened with SS as I write this today (2/9/13), is that Susan was possibly more loyal to her professional conduct requirements and put her integrity as a lawyer above the interests of the business. She did not communicate clearly what she was concerned about. If as she says she felt compromised (personally and for the business) by being asked to manage SS more closely, then her misjudgement was that she did not make that clearer to me on the two or three occasions that I asked her to do so.”

Heaven forfend Crichton should put her personal or professional integrity before the Post Office. Professor Richard Moorhead has already seized on this as an indictment of Vennells’ appalling leadership and judgment. But what I would add is that whilst Crichton was clearly under huge amounts of pressure for having allowed Second Sight to open a can of worms, she was partly compromised by her own behaviour.

Crichton’s personal integrity was very much missing when she was seeking advice on suing or injuncting Second Sight, or getting them to tone down their report for being too emotional, or failing to investigate John Scott or reacting more firmly to the explosive first Clarke Advice. She only clung to her integrity when the gangsters running the show turned on her. No matter how she tried to paint her conflict with the Post Office board as a noble stand, Crichton’s evidence today amounted to little more than a personal pity party…

… which continues into tomorrow. Paula Vennells is up for three days beginning 22 May and Alice Perkins is up for two days beginning 5 June.

Singh’s light coital relief

Post Office comedy lawyer Jarnail Singh‘s mangling of the language got a laugh in the Inquiry today as he put up a spirited defence (in 2012) of the Post Office’s need to keep prosecuting Subpostmasters despite the evidential basis for doing so looking ever weaker. We think he meant “capitulation”:

A special anniversary

Today is the third anniversary of the quashing of 39 Subpostmaster convictions at the Court of Appeal. Here is Janet Skinners’ take:

Here’s a link to my newsletter from that day, my blog post and picture gallery.

I am currently touring Post Office Scandal – the Inside Story. Please do come and see us as we make our way around the country (all dates here).

The journalism on this blog is crowdfunded. If you would like to join the “secret email” newsletter, please consider making a one-off donation. The money is used to keep the contents of this website free. You will receive irregular, but informative email updates about the Post Office Horizon IT scandal.

Subscribe For Latest Blog Updates

36 responses to “The Bleatings of a Sorry Scapegoat: Lady Susan’s Pity Party”

  1. LIFE IMPRISONMENT, but, as an act of mercy as she showed some albeit faint glimmerings of integrity, with the possibility of parole after ten years served.

  2. […] have a view on the Post Office’s only criminal lawyer Jarnail Singh being supervised by Susan Crichton, a General Counsel with no experience of criminal […]

  3. She was erudite and verbose with excellent recall for some non contentious evidence. Unsurprisingly cowardly and could not recall when probed about her part in the cover up.
    Would anyone here fail to remember shouting at the Chief executive of their company.
    She was skewered with the shredding, under the radar and redefining of words (bugs).

  4. Charles Willson avatar
    Charles Willson

    I have a slightly broader question relating to the whole mess. I have been following the story closely for quite a while. One area I have never seen any clean explanation of is the checks and balances around the missing money.

    If a postmaster is accused of stealing 35,000 pounds. But they did not steal this money. Why is that money not showing up as still in the system somewhere once checks and balances are performed?

    Surely there was some kind of audit process that would show that the money was not missing. I have seen very little coverage of the financial forensics that presumably would have shown that these were ghost transactions.

    What am I missing?

    1. I think the point is that there WASN’T an audit process that analysed things correctly. If Horizon said there should be an extra receipt and therefore an extra (say) £50 in the till, that was treated as fact. Unless an SPM kept their own records of every transaction (not easy in a busy retail business when you’re serving customers all day) there wasn’t any independent record to check against. Even then it seems the Post Office would have ignored it and treated Horizon as factual.

  5. I know “I can’t recall” is a general response to any question that may be an issue for a witness but to think Susan Crichton can’t recall a blazing row with one of her bosses is stretching credibility to the extreme.

    This isn’t a reflection on a conversation based on a small part of an e-mail. I can only see two possible answers that could have been given, either a flat out denial that it ever took place or an admission that it did. I simply can’t believe you would forget something like that

  6. Nick, I am a little bit surprised at your expectation that Susan Crichton would potentially become a whistleblower after leaving the PO after your vindication of “Clint” from Fujitsu at your Darlington live event for not doing the same thing because it would have been “professional suicide” !? We seem to be judging people who were embroiled in this fiasco with the same level of culpability when it would have been impossible for many of them to know the full picture of the devastation being caused. In order to do something virtuous in a corporate environment you sometimes have to toe the company line and do things you perhaps would regret in order to get the end result you are seeking? Susan Crichton took a big hit for recommending Second Sight and championing their independence, she clearly saw the writing on the wall and made for the exit. With Vennells as her boss who could blame her?!

    1. I agree. And not least because it was absolutely obvious to me that POL would have had her sign an NDA upon leaving their employment – only this could explain her absolute silence over the last 11 years (interestingly, confirmation of her signing an NDA was only revealed by Sam Stephens’ during the Core Participants’ lawyers’ questioning and not during Counsel to the Inquiry’s questioning).

    2. I agree. I believe her having signed an NDA dictated her silence on this scandal over the last 11 years.

    3. I don’t know why, but the moderators won’t allow me to agree with you!

  7. SC spent a day or so doing a nuanced version of John Scott’s failure to remember anything that was not easily proven bythe hardcopy evidence.
    SC’s carefully constructed memory fade failed only near the last when she was asked how she approached Ron Walmington to engage his services, suddenly she had instant and near complete recall.

    She proved herself a cowardly lawyer

  8. SC spent a day or so doing a nuanced version of John Scott’s failure to remember anything that was not easily proven bythe hardcopy evidence.
    SC’s carefully constructed memory fade failed only near the last when she was asked how she approached Ron Walmington to engage his services, suddenly she had instant and near complete recall.

    She proved herself a cowardly liar/lawyer

  9. Slightly off point I know but it’s worth remembering on this day what the late Frank Field had to say about POL board of directors after a meeting with them back in 2000 ‘ appalling and short sighted ‘ Wonder if anything much has changed since then.

  10. […] admit I was less measured about Crichton’s evidence yesterday than I have been about Aujard’s today, which you might see as being unfair. I think I agree. […]

  11. Was there a formal handover between the outgoing General Counsel, Susan Crichton, and and the incoming GC., Chris Aujard?

    If not, why not?

  12. I have mixed feelings about Susan Crichton. She undoubtedly made serious mistakes of omission, possibly through weakness, and some of commission. On the other hand she does seem to have done some things that bore good fruit: particularly bringing Second Sight to the attention of POL as potential forensic accountants. However I lose sympathy with her for remaining silent for so many years. She could presumably have walked away from POL without a settlement (I don’t suppose she was penniless), and without an NDA, and then she could have spoken out. With her alleged misgivings about POL, that would have genuinely shown integrity.

  13. Nick when are you getting the podcast up and running again? Really enjoyed all the episodes on phase 2

  14. This was exactly my reading after watching her testimony. You can tell she still feels sorry for herself, with zero reflection on the misery she inflicted on hundreds. Her failure to do anything about the Clark advice (both parts), or having zero interest as Head of Legal for a body which initiates prosecutions stands in stark contrast to the mother Theresa persona she tried to build.

  15. My overall impression of Tuesday’s evidence is that there were several obvious indications that POL wanted Second Sight to perform an ostensibly independent report that would be a whitewash of the Horizon problems.
    The implication in the writing of Alice Perkins that the civil service would control the preparation of an independent report I find very sinister.
    She refers to Second Sight as having changed the terms of reference, in other words doing a proper independent investigation aimed at uncovering the truth. Surely that was their role in a situation driven by fairness, morals and ethics. Alice Perkins time in the witness box will be very interesting.

  16. Once again thanks for your superb reporting of such an important subject – important for those directly involved but also for all of us as citizens gaining an insight into the appalling culture of major institutions within the nation.

    I devoutly hope that those finally officially exposed for their casual contempt for decency, the law and justice, will pay a real price for their despicable actions.

    Keep on keeping’ on!


  17. I sometimes felt sympathy for Susan Crighton during the hearing. She was clearly a victim of the appalling behaviour of the “gang of two” (Vennels and Perkins). At other times I felt angry at her apparent lack of moral courage.
    What was absolutely clear is that the culture of the POL was disgraceful, and individuals who refused to “toe the line” were berated and banished to the “lower moral ground” whereas they did, in fact, inhabit the “higher moral ground”. The problem for the subpostmasters was that apparently, there were not enough of them to form a quorum, as it were.
    On a lighter note, use of the word “copulation” instead of “capitulation” by Jarnail Singh speaks volumes for the integrity of the man, or more accurately, the lack of such. I am sure that we are all looking forward to his second appearance with anticipation, not necessarily expecting more comedic faux pas, but perhaps ,with luck, more comedic absurdities…………

  18. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

    Like most of us, my knowledge of legal proceedings is built largely on a diet of TV and movie court room thrillers, where key moments are signposted by gasps from the public gallery, fatal thrusts from the examining lawyer and tearful collapses from the accused.

    That’s not how things are in real life, and I often miss key moments in the Inquiry until I read the analysis the next day.

    But even I couldn’t miss Susan Crichton’s Humpty Dumpty moment, where she insisted that, in Crichtonland, to “box off” a piece of damning evidence means “to try to understand the technical detail of it”. Three times she repeated this, and I thought it just as worthy of a laugh from the audience as Jarmail Singh’s copulation moment.

  19. Crichton seemed to be blessed with an aura of plodding procedural competence of the sort that can find its way safely across a bog in the mist without ever seeing the map of where she goes. Or really caring.

  20. What keeps coming across in the Inquiry is the lack genuine self reflection and remorse from those involved. They still were more committed to
    Their own positions and defending themselves
    The Post office culture and their unwavering belief that the sub masters were at least mostly guilty as charged

    How many of the actual Post Office Insiders have shown genuine obvious sorrow for the unjustice and suffering of the postmasters and recognised their own failures?

  21. The attempt by Post Office to minimise the emotive impact of the term “bug” is bizarre (ref evidence to the Inquiry on 23 April 2024 AM”. The term “bug” was used in an account by computer pioneer Grace Hopper, who publicized the cause of a malfunction in an early electromechanical computer.

    In 1946, when Hopper was released from active duty with the US Navy, she joined the Harvard Faculty at the Computation Laboratory where she continued her work on the ENIAC Mark II and Mark III. Operators traced an error in the Mark II to a moth trapped in a relay, coining the term bug. This bug was carefully removed and taped to the log book. Stemming from the first bug, today we call errors or glitches in a program a bug.

  22. BARKLEY Alastair avatar
    BARKLEY Alastair

    I haven’t even got to SC yet.

    I have been delayed on two whole days of Rodric Williams – his schoolboyish squirming, his need to have straightforward questions repeated or explained, his inability to answer questions – even YES or NO ones – without qualification: “I believe so.. ‘,” to the best of my knowledge. “,”that’s what the document says..” It’ s been too uncomfortable, too embarrassing to watch. I’ve only be able to take it in small doses.

    Where did POL get these people?

    Why didn’t I know, back in the 1970s, that well-remunerated, sinecure, lifetime positions in PO senior management were there for low-energy, low achievers, pretty much for the asking? All my wasted efforts elsewhere…

  23. Great how you make a comprehensible story out of a sea of variations on ‘I don’t remember’. Please more of these excellent summaries!
    Best wishes from Holland,

    1. Richard Rickard avatar
      Richard Rickard

      Indeed! It’s remarkable how so many career-significant events have completely slipped from memory! Identifying the names involved seems to be particularly vulnerable to amnesia. Surely most of us would vividly remember if we had participated in the criminal prosecution, conviction and financial ruination of erstwhile decent and respected citizens.

  24. Can the enquiry be encouraged to investigate how many subpostmasters were prosecuted in the years prior to Horizon? Presumably, the answer will be a fraction of the number prosecuted post-Horizon. So any intelligent manager would look for procedural or system changes introduced around the time of the upturn in cases. Not rocket science. PO management should explain to the enquiry why this simple forensic approach was not taken.

    1. If they read Nick Wallis’s book it’s in there.
      I guess the POL jaundiced stance would be that the new software exposed criminal SPMs that previously got away with their crimes.

      There are now reports surfacing of more miscarriages in the pre Horizon days as well so the pre Horizon figures may have been skewed even higher by unsafe prosecutions and dodgy civil recovery actions.

    2. Richard Rickard avatar
      Richard Rickard

      I suspect the answer must be that, pre automation, the PO assumed that many Postmasters were ‘on the fiddle’ (the ‘thieving subpostmasters’ as has been reported) but PO did not have the audit manpower to prove it. They fully expected that Horizon would expose this rampant thievery – which of course it apparently did!

  25. Nick , as a former GC I agree with every word of this-and here is my two pennyworth on the “Lawyers as Leaders” line that PV seems to be pushing for (and which she then seems to have secured post SC )…something to keep an eye on I think.

    This ” lawyer led “approach was supported by (even demanded) by the CEO ; it encouraged and ultimately enabled an “Invisible Board” for whom “delegate to legal don’t ask too many questions and maintain a discrete distance” appears to have been the preferred modus operandi , ultimately leading to the safety net that is …
    “I consulted , was advised, and acted in accordance with that advice” the execs “don’t blame me, I was listening to my lawyer ” mantra .

    PV/AP weren’t looking for a scapegoat-they were looking for a GC who would run the lines they wanted , not actively seek out the truth , and not rock the corporate boat-irrespective of the consequences .

    Thus lawyers (internal and external) were positioned by the Board to develop key lines of defence , and as is their natural way , they took delay and obfuscation as their preferred method of working.

    This created a position whereby there was a total absence of any central overarching view on merits , no attempt to conduct any form of root cause analysis (whether technical legal or operational) or investigate and report on obvious errors and omissions .

    Ultimately what emerges from this legal fog is a a rigid unyielding focus on brand/self-preservation whatever the cost (millions in costs, and misery for hundreds of Postmasters and their families) -“bunker mentality” hardly does justice to the case.

    Some further thoughts on lawyers as leaders (from one who has floated two ftse 100 companies from scratch) –

    1. In any crisis , Lawyers, especially those whose interests are closely aligned with the Client should never be left to lead the charge let alone decide on the time location and scale of the battle-they are generally good at identifying issues but can be poor decision makers and very rarely do they make good commercial leaders-its just not in their nature.

    2. The Board , in the shape of the CEO, ideally supported by the Lead Non Exec Director MUST be front and centre at all times and its the Lawyers job to tell them so , not to act as the Boards tame puppy-in my experience , if you’re clear enough and robust enough Boards listen (hence PV arse covering aspect that the fault lay with SC for not being clear enough about her concerns… we can expect to hear more on that….) .

    3. Lawyers need to know their place, be clear as to their role, and have the courage to clearly and unequivocally step back from areas in which they have zero expertise.

    4. I question whether, given the complexity of today’s corporate environment in-house lawyers can ever be truly independent- there is a case for saying that the employed lawyer (as in France for example) effectively gives up any claim to be an independent , regulated, advisor on hiring , and should be viewed as such-in effect just another member of the corporate team alongside Finance HR IT Audit etc .

    5. The more in-house counsel look to secure a special place around the corporate top table , the more isolated and accountable they will become when the doors get blown off (as they inevitably will). I’m not one who favours the lawyer as ethical gatekeeper-it simply makes them too important.

    6. The more “lawyer led” the company’s approach to risk and its response to events that threaten the very corporate existence , (by the nature of the Lawyers role) the more likely we are to see a recurrence of the mess that is the Horizon scandal.

    1. Excellent! Thank you for this clarification.

  26. Vernon Stradling avatar
    Vernon Stradling

    I’m looking forward to Alice Perkins (aka Mrs Jack Straw)’s session under questioning.

    1. As Angela van den Bogerd starts from a position of no credibility as witness, I anticipate two full days of amnesiac squirm. Better viewing than Alice imo.

  27. Thanks for today’s report, Nick. I’ve only been able to watch a few minutes of Chrichton’s evidence so far but one thing told me so much. Her attempt at an apology – read from the piece of paper clutched in her clasped hands and most likely written by an adviser – came over as so insincere. Was she really unable to express a few words of apology without notes and at least make an attempt at making it seem half genuine?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *