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Forensic investigation into Post Office IT system at centre of legal case nears completion

The investigation into the fairness of court cases brought against sub-postmasters is close to finishing its forensic examination of the IT system at the heart of the controversy

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

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