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The Criminal Courts Review Commission (CCRC) has appointed a firm of forensic accountants to investigate the Horizon IT system at the centre of claims of wrongful prosecution of sub-postmasters.
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In April 2015, the CCRC began considering sub-postmasters’ claims of wrongful prosecution for offences such as theft and false accounting, as a result of problems with the Post Office’s Horizon IT system that is used to file accounts. The CCRC is reviewing 27 cases put forward by sub-postmasters who claim they did not get a fair trial.
Two years on from the CCRC’s decision to look into the cases, the appointment of forensic accountants is an important milestone.
In 2009, Computer Weekly revealed the stories of sub-postmasters who had received heavy fines and even jail terms for alleged false accounting, which they blamed on the Horizon operating system and its supporting processes (see timeline below for full story).
The Post Office appointed, and paid for, forensic investigation firm Second Sight to investigate the alleged problems with Horizon raised by sub-postmasters. But after Second Sight’s 96-page report was published in April 2015 saying that the Post Office had been too quick to take legal action against sub-postmasters, the Post Office published an 83-page report of its own claiming that Second Sight’s claims were wrong.
The Second Sight report said: “As a result of our investigations, we have established that the Post Office’s investigators have, in many cases, failed to identify the underlying root cause of shortfalls prior to the initiation of civil recovery action or criminal proceedings. This includes cases where applicants brought to the auditors’ or investigators’ attention their own suspicions as to the underlying root causes of their branches’ losses.”
The Post Office said at the time: “In none of the Post Office’s own work, nor through any of Second Sight’s work, has any information emerged to suggest that a conviction is unsafe. The Post Office as a prosecutor has a continuing duty to disclose immediately any information that subsequently comes to light which might undermine its prosecution case or support the case of the defendant. We have to satisfy both stages of the code for crown prosecutors to start a prosecution – the evidential stage that there is sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction and the public interest stage.”
In an update, the CCRC said: “The Commission continues to actively review a string of cases relating to applications from former [sub-postmasters] convicted of offences such as theft and false accounting, having been prosecuted by the Post Office. We now have 27 such cases where a common theme is that the applicants are saying that issues with the Post Office’s Horizon computer system contributed to their convictions.”
Although each case is different, they are being treated as a group. “Ultimately, each case needs to be considered on its own specific facts but, given the similarities in the issues raised, we are taking a co-ordinated approach to these reviews,” the CCRC added.
Separately, about 1,000 people have applied to take part in a group action brought against the Post Office by sub-postmasters who allege they have been wrongly punished for computer errors. The High Court approved the group litigation order earlier this year. The action was set up by campaign group Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance (JFSA), and the number of sub-postmasters involved is expected to increase from the initial 198.
The Horizon system was implemented by the Post Office in 2000 and has been the subject of complaints by sub-postmasters ever since. Initial concerns were raised when the system was first implemented in 2000, when Alan Bates – who set up JFSA in 2009 – put his concerns in writing to the Post Office. Back in 2009, Computer Weekly spoke to seven sub-postmasters, each of whom was alleged to owe tens of thousands of pounds.
Post Office Horizon: Timeline of events
September 2009 Postmasters form action group after accounts shortfall.
November 2009 Post Office theft case deferred over IT questions.
January 2013 Post Office announces amnesty for Horizon evidence.
December 2014 MPs to debate sub-postmaster IT injustice claims.