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The forensic accountant firm appointed by the Criminal Court Review Commission (CCRC) to investigate the Horizon IT system at the centre of claims of wrongful prosecution of sub-postmasters is expected to complete its work next month.
In April 2015, the CCRC began reviewing claims from sub-postmasters of wrongful prosecution for offences such as theft and false accounting, as a result of problems with the Post Office’s Horizon IT system through which they file accounts. It is reviewing 27 cases put forward by sub-postmasters who claim they did not get a fair trial.
The allegations date back a decade and, in 2009, Computer Weekly revealed the stories of some of the sub-postmasters who had received heavy fines and even jail terms for alleged false accounting, which they blamed on the Horizon system and its supporting processes. A separate group litigation brought by affected sub-postmasters is ongoing.
As part of the CCRC investigation, in April 2017 it appointed forensic accountants to look closer at the IT system, which, according to a letter sent to the sub-postmasters with cases under review, is nearing completion.
“Our forensic accountants are making good progress and we expect them to finish their current piece of work in the next month. We will carefully scrutinise their report when we have it and consider whether it gives rise to any further lines of enquiry,” said a CCRC spokesperson.
The CCRC expects to update the sub-postmasters involved before the end of March this year.
This is not the first forensic investigation of Horizon and its supporting processes. The Post Office appointed, and paid for, forensic investigation firm Second Sight to look into the alleged problems with Horizon raised by sub-postmasters.
However, 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: “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.”
There is currently a group action in the High Court, which was brought by the Justice For Sub-postmasters Alliance (JFSA), after around a decade of campaigning for sub-postmasters who claim wrongful prosecution and fines for false accounting. The first month-long trial will take place in November 2018, followed by another in March 2019.
The first hearing will establish the legal relationship between the Post Office and sub-postmasters. As part of this, solicitors on both sides will identify 12 lead claimants, out of whom a group of six will be chosen as lead (or sample) cases at the trial, with 20 days set aside for hearing evidence.
The second trial will focus on matters such as the behaviour of the Post Office towards sub-postmasters, many of who allege bullying and false imprisonment, for example.
Post Office Horizon: Timeline of events
- May 2009: Bankruptcy, prosecution and disrupted livelihoods – postmasters tell their story.
- September 2009: Postmasters form action group after accounts shortfall.
- November 2009: Post Office theft case deferred over IT questions.
- February 2011: Post Office faces legal action over alleged accounting system failures.
- October 2011: 85 sub-postmasters seek legal support in claims against Post Office computer system.
- June 2012: Post Office launches external review of system at centre of legal disputes.
- January 2013: Post Office admits Horizon system needs more investigation.
- January 2013: Post Office announces amnesty for Horizon evidence.
- January 2013: Post Office wants to get to bottom of IT system allegations.
- June 2013: Investigation into Post Office accounting system to drill down on strongest cases.
- July 2013: Post Office Horizon system investigation reveals concerns.
- October 2013: End in sight for sub-postmaster claims against Post Office’s Horizon accounting system.
- October 2013: Former Lord Justice of Appeal Hooper joins Post Office Horizon investigation.
- November 2013: 150 sub-postmasters file claims over “faulty” Horizon accounting system.
- September 2014: Fresh questions raised over Post Office IT system’s role in fraud cases.
- December 2014: MPs blast Post Office over IT system investigation and remove backing.
- December 2014: Why MPs lost faith in the Post Office’s IT investigation, but vowed to fight on.
- December 2014: MPs to debate sub-postmaster IT injustice claims.
- December 2014: MP accuses Post Office of acting “duplicitously” in IT investigation.
- January 2015: MPs force inquiry into Post Office sub-postmaster mediation scheme.
- January 2015: Post Office faces grilling by MPs over Horizon accounting system.
- February 2015: Post Office CIO would talk to any sub-postmaster about IT problems, promises CEO.
- March 2015: Post Office ends working group for IT system investigation day before potentially damaging report.
- March 2015: MPs seek reassurance over Post Office mediation scheme.
- March 2015: Retiring MP aims to uncover truth of alleged Post Office computer system problems.
- April 2015: Post Office failed to investigate account shortfalls before legal action, report claims.
- April 2015: Criminal Courts Review Commission set to review sub-postmasters’ claims of wrongful prosecution.
- May 2015: IT system related to sub-postmaster prosecutions under review by CCRC.
- June 2015: Post Office looking to replace controversial Horizon system with IBM, says MP.
- July 2015: Campaigners call for independent inquiry into Post Office Horizon IT system dispute.
- October 2015: James Arbuthnot takes Post Office IT fight to House of Lords.
- November 2015: The union that represents Post Office sub-postmasters has warned of a problem with the Horizon accounting system.
- November 2015: An email from Post Office IT support reveals a problem with the Horizon system and supporting processes that could lead to accounting errors.
- November 2015: Group litigation against Post Office being prepared in Horizon dispute.
- February 2016: Post Office faces group litigation over Horizon IT as sub-postmasters fund class action.
- June 2016: Post Office chairman Tim Parker says there would be “considerable risk” associated with changing its Horizon computer system.
- November 2016: The legal team hired by a group of sub-postmasters will take their case to the next stage.
- January 2017: The group action against the Post Office that alleges sub-postmasters have been wrongly punished for accounting errors gets a green light from the High Court of Justice.
- March 2017: 1,000 sub-postmasters apply to join IT-related group litigation against Post Office.
- April 2017: Investigation into claims of miscarriages of justice in relation to a Post Office accounting system has appointed a forensic accountant firm.
- May 2017: Hundreds of sub-postmasters have applied to join IT-related legal action since March.
- July 2017: Post Office defence in computer system legal case due this week.
- August 2017: Campaigners submit initial evidence in group litigation against Post Office over controversial Horizon IT system.
- October 2017: Sub-postmasters’ group action against the Post Office reaches an important milestone.
- November 2017: An end is in sight for sub-postmasters’ campaign against alleged wrongful prosecution, which they blame on a faulty computer system
- November 2017: The high court judge managing the sub-postmasters versus Post Office legal case over an allegedly faulty computer system tells legal teams to cooperate.