Post Office 'hushed up' hounding of subpostmaster who took his own life, inquiry told

The Post Office “hushed up” details of a wrongly accused subpostmaster’s suicide with a £140,000 payment to his family which came with a gagging order, the inquiry has heard.

Martin Griffiths, 58, deliberately stepped in front of a bus and suffered fatal injuries in 2013 after he had been accused of financial mismanagement at his Post Office branch near Ellesmere Port.

In the months before his death, he had been “hounded” by Post Office after being blamed for till shortfalls caused by the malfunctioning Horizon IT system, and pursued by Post Office bosses over money lost when he fell victim to an armed robbery.

Internal emails, shown to the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry on Friday, reveal the first reaction within the organisation to news of Mr Griffiths’ suicide attempt was to seek the services of a media lawyer.

“The immediate reaction was not ‘is Mr Griffiths alright? What about his health?’”, said counsel to the Inquiry Jason Beer KC.

“The immediate reaction wasn’t ‘what could we, Post Office, do to help this man’s family? What about his wife and children? Should we get someone down to the hospital’ That didn’t happen.”

Mr Griffiths suffered serious injuries when he was struck by the bus, and died in hospital when his life support was switched off.

Angela van den Bogerd told the Post Office inquiry payments were not made to ‘hush up’ the suicide of Martin Griffiths (ES Composite)
Angela van den Bogerd told the Post Office inquiry payments were not made to ‘hush up’ the suicide of Martin Griffiths (ES Composite)

The inquiry was shown a series of emails and letters about the deal brokered by former Post Office executive Angela van den Bogerd to pay £140,000 to Mr Griffiths’ widow Gina.

The final payout was structured to be released in stages and conditional on her agreement not to speak publicly about the case. It also forced an end to a separate claim from Mr Griffiths’ family over his treatment while working as a subpostmaster.

Mr Beer suggested Ms van den Bogerd had “procured a settlement” which left the “sword of Damocles” hanging over the widow, effectively saying to her: “You don’t get any more money unless you keep quiet”.

Mr Beer added: “You ensured that there was a non-disclosure agreement was attached to that settlement, you agreed to the staging of payments to act as an incentive, using money as a tool to keep the matter hushed up.”

Ms van den Bogerd replied: “It was never to keep the matter hushed up.

“Any settlement the Post Office ever entered into was done with a non-disclosure agreement.”

Asked why, she replied: “That was just the way they operated.”

When Mr Beer accused her of giving “the answer of an automaton”, Ms van den Bogerd said she “accepted that was the standard approach”.

She was also accused of giving a “word soup” answer as she faced the second day of tough questioning from Mr Beer.

Before his death, Mr Griffiths, a subpostmaster for 18 years, wrote to say he believed shortfalls in his branch accounting were down to the Horizon accounting system, and he was considering approaching his MP and the media to complain about his treatment.

His mother then wrote to Post Office in July 2013, a few months before his death, to say her son was “under severe pressure” and that she and her husband had been using their life savings to help him make up the mystery shortfall.

Angela van den Bogerd giving evidence to the inquiry (Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry/PA) (PA Media)
Angela van den Bogerd giving evidence to the inquiry (Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry/PA) (PA Media)

On September 23 2013, subpostmaster Alan Bates, who has led the campaign for justice in the Horizon scandal, wrote to Post Office executives including Ms van den Bogerd and former chief executive Paul Vennells with details of Mr Griffiths’ suicide bid.

“I know he was terrified to raise his shortages with POL (Post Office Ltd) because of just this type of thing happening to him, but POL got him in the end”, wrote Mr Bates.

“Regardless of what may or may not have occurred with him, why did POL have to hound him to the point of trying to take his own life? Why?”

He said Mr Griffiths had gone to a meeting with Post Office to discussion his case the week before stepping in front of a bus, and he had complied with the request to attend the meeting alone without legal representation.

When compensation was offered to the family, under a scheme usually reserved for Post Office workers who were quitting, Mr Griffiths’ daughter wrote to say she was “disgusted” with their treatment.

“We hold the Post Office solely and wholly responsible for what happenedto him”, she wrote.

“As I am sure you can imagine, our family has had an extremely tough year, with what I consider no support from the Post Office.”

She added: “I understand that you are putting what you discussed with my Mum yesterday in writing to her. It appears from what I have heard that you are offering the £140k ‘compensation payment’ on the condition that we drop any action or legal recourse with the Post Office for any further compensation for its wrongdoing.

“No amount of financial compensation could replace the fact that the Post Office has taken our Dad away from our family, but simply put £140k ‘compensation’ for our Dad’s life is simply disgusting.”

Ms van den Bogerd defended her actions after Mr Griffiths’ death, and said she had been focused on providing compensation and support to his family.

At the start of his evidence yesterday, she issued an apology for the “devastation” to subpostmasters and their families. But she refused to apologise for her own role in the scandal.