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Legal Ethics

Legal Ethics

Our research at the University of Exeter is combining legal expertise with social science to understand the human cost of flawed systems.

This unique approach delves into the complexities of the Post Office scandal, aiming to prevent similar tragedies and reshape ethical practices within the legal system.

The devastating human cost of the Post Office scandal.

The Post Office scandal exposed a massive miscarriage of justice. For well over a decade, a faulty computer system called Horizon produced inaccurate financial information led to the wrongful prosecution of more than 900 sub-postmasters and postmistresses. The Post Office privately prosecuted most of these cases – an average of one person wrongly accused every week between 1999 and 2015. Thousands more had money wrongfully taken by the Post Office. Many were removed unceremoniously from their businesses. The human cost was devastating. Over 200 were wrongfully imprisoned and tragically, at least six people took their own lives. The Criminal Cases Review Commission said the scandal was "the most widespread miscarriage of justice" it had seen. 

From corporate law to criminal justice, our research is showing the need to change how lawyers think and behave.

The Post Office scandal exposed a dark side of the legal system. Professor Richard Moorhead leads an interdisciplinary team of researchers – Dr Karen Nokes, Professor Rebecca Helm, Dr Sally Day, and Dr Emily Spearing - in ongoing research that dissects the role lawyers played in this miscarriage of justice.

The problems span prosecutions, civil litigation, and corporate governance work such as investigations. By interrogating the Post Office scandal and working with professionals, they are developing practical approaches to decision-making that lessen the potential for ethical problems in the future. 

Sign on wall outside a Post Office

“Our research directly influenced the Public Inquiry, persuading them to examine the failures of lawyers and their contribution to corporate culture, alongside the failures to understand technology and broader mismanagement that is the focus of their work. Additionally, by producing key data from a deep dive into the experiences of the many people who faced plea bargaining decisions we have impacted on compensation decisions and the Government’s historic decision to quash Horizon-based convictions en masse through an Act of Parliament. Through engaging with lawyers accustomed to practising in high pressure commercial contexts, our research is informing and influencing legal ethics into the future.” 

Professor Richard Moorhead

This three-year project, funded by the ESRC/UKRI builds on the team’s experiences in professional ethics, miscarriages of justice, criminology, and behavioural approaches to decision-making. The team is drawing on theories of institutional logics and professional pathology to build causal pathways to look at the role of lawyers and the professional and ethical failures involved. As well as widening the scope of the Post Office scandal Inquiry, the work is championing rigorous approaches to research focused on lawyers and the future of legal practice. Professional regulators and other interest groups have seized on their work as part of a strategic focus on lawyers’ ethics that the research itself helped stimulate. 

It’s key to note that this brand-new research into lawyers’ ethics examines the complex interplay between the criminal justice system, an often toxic and arrogant corporate culture, and the capacity of groupthink to draw in junior and senior, sometimes very senior, lawyers.  

Red postbox in a wall

Taking an interdisciplinary approach to stop injustice. 

Shifting the focus of the public inquiry to management and lawyering has been central to lifting legal professional privilege. Our unique approach, combining social science and legal expertise, gives a holistic view of lawyer decision-making that practitioners can recognise and act on. Robust evidence-based insights delivered in practical terms is central to driving change. Professor Moorhead and the team (Dr Karen Nokes, Professor Rebecca Helm, Dr Sally Day and Dr Emily Spearing) who have expertise in management science, law, psychology, and criminology are working with lawyers, Parliamentarians, policymakers, and professional regulators to drive real change in attitudes, thinking, and behaviour.  

The future of our research.

Ultimately, our research will result in practical frameworks, grounded in real-world experience. These frameworks will guide meaningful changes at institutional and individual levels within the Criminal Justice System, legal professional regulation, the conduct of litigation, and corporate governance. By addressing these critical areas, we aim to empower lawyers to resist rather than assist in the abuse of law and the miscarriages of justice that we have seen ruin the lives of thousands of sub-postmasters and postmistresses. 

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Delve deeper into the ongoing fight for justice by sub-postmasters and staff, and learn how our researchers are piecing together the legal and ethical failings that led to this devastating miscarriage of justice.  

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Discover how our research groups are tackling critical issues at the intersection of law, society, and the digital age.

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