Post Office Slammed After Convictions Overturned

The Prime Minister Boris Johnson has told the Post Office that lessons need to be learned, after a bug with its Horizon computer system ruined people’s lives.

On Friday thirty nine sub-postmasters who were wrongly prosecuted by the Post Office had their criminal convictions overturned, Sky News reported.

This has opened the door for more legal action against the Post Office and its long-running dispute with postal staff over errors in Fujitsu’s Horizon IT system.

Long-running battle

The entire case centres over the use of the Horizon accounting system, which has been in place since 1999 and records transactions across Post Office branches.

Alleged mistakes with Horizon caused sub-postmasters to be wrongly accused of fraud, and many were told to pay back supposedly missing funds or face prosecution.

The problem became a political issue in 2009, when reports surfaced of sub-postmasters who had received heavy fines or jail terms for alleged false accounting, which they said resulted from problems with Horizon.

Thousands of sub-postmasters independently operate smaller post offices, and are obliged to make up shortfalls out of their own pockets.

In 2011, 85 sub-postmasters sought legal support in claims against the Post Office after being wrongly accused of taking money.

In later years this figure rose to 550 sub-postmasters suing the Post Office.

What made matters worse, was that the Post Office always argued that there is no evidence of systemic problems with Horizon, but set up the mediation scheme in 2013 after independent investigators found defects in the software.

In 2014 more than 140 MPs said they could no longer support the Post Office’s mediation scheme after numerous complaints about Horizon.

Miscarriage of justice

A total of 960 convictions linked to the scandal were reviewed, in what was dubbed the biggest miscarriage of justice in UK history.

Then in December 2019 the Post Office agreed to pay almost £58 million as part of a settlement after legal action by sub-postmasters after they were wrongly accused of taking money.

But most of that money went on legal costs.

And then it surfaced in June 2020, that bosses at the Post Office has been told as far back as 2011 that Horizon could be to blame for missing money, but it still pursued prosecutions against staff anyway, with hundreds of postmasters sacked, going bankrupt or wrongfully convicted.

Convictions overturned

And now this week convictions against 39 sub postmasters have been overturned.

The appellants, some of whom were jailed for crimes they never committed, had been accused of theft and false accounting.

In court, Sam Stein QC, the barrister representing several sub-postmasters, said the scandal had turned the Post Office “into the nation’s most untrustworthy brand”.

The barrister who led that civil claim called today’s judgement an “incredible victory” that could pave the way for more substantial compensation, Sky News reported.

“This is something we should all be ashamed of – that it ever happened, but money will never compensate these people for what’s happened to them,” said Patrick Green QC.

The sub-postmasters appealed their convictions on two grounds: that they had been denied a fair trial, and that the circumstances in which the prosecutions went ahead “represents an affront to public conscience”.

The court granted the appeal of 39 out of 42 postmasters on both grounds, despite the Post Office fighting 35 of the cases on the second point.

The decision means the postmasters could bring new civil cases for malicious prosecution, which could mean the Post Office paying out significantly more in compensation.

Prime Minister warning

Announcing the court’s ruling, Lord Justice Holroyde was quoted as saying that the Post Office “knew there were serious issues about the reliability of Horizon” and had a “clear duty to investigate” the system’s defects.

But the Post Office “consistently asserted that Horizon was robust and reliable”, and “effectively steamrolled over any sub-postmaster who sought to challenge its accuracy”, the judge added.

Lord Justice Holroyde, sitting with Mr Justice Picken and Mrs Justice Farbey, said: “Post Office Limited’s failures of investigation and disclosure were so egregious as to make the prosecution of any of the ‘Horizon cases’ an affront to the conscience of the court.”

And the Prime Minister also waded into the “appalling injustice” of the case.

“I welcome the Court of Appeal’s decision to overturn the convictions of 39 former sub-postmasters in the Horizon dispute, an appalling injustice which has had a devastating impact on these families for years,” he tweeted.

“Lessons should and will be learnt to ensure this never happens again,” he added.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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