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Subpostmasters told to expect decision on alleged unfair prosecutions in August

The Criminal Courts Review Commission is expected to announce the findings of an investigation into alleged unfair subpostmaster prosecutions in August

An investigation by the Criminal Courts Review Commission into alleged wrongful prosecutions of subpostmasters for theft is expected to come to a decision on the cases in August.

In May 2015, the CCRC received 30 applications from subpostmasters related to prosecutions for account shortfalls, which they blame on the Post Office’s Horizon computer system.

The CCRC set up a team to focus on the cases and later appointed a forensic accountant firm to look at the Horizon computer system at the centre of the controversy. On April 18, the CCRC said the forensic accounting company completed its initial findings, and from this has decided to make further enquiries.

Last week, in a letter to subpostmasters involved, the CCRC said: “The latest position is that there are some limited enquiries outstanding, but that we are reaching the end of the investigation phase of the CCRC’s review. We anticipate that the investigation phase will be completed by the end of August 2018.”

The applicants were convicted for offences such as fraud, false accounting and theft when shortfalls in their accounts were found. But they claim this was the result of problems with the Horizon accounting system used by subpostmasters. The Post Office denies this. Most of the 30 applicants received suspended or non-custodial sentences, including community service, but six received custodial sentences for between six and 18 months.

This is not the first forensic investigation of Horizon. 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 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.

Meanwhile Subpostmasters experienced two nationwide Horizon system outages last month.

Connectivity issues

On May 23, a problem hit the entire company, according to a spokesperson at the National Federation of SubPostmasters. A Post Office statement said: “We are very sorry for any inconvenience caused by connectivity issues at some Post Office branches during the afternoon on Wednesday May 23. Around 2,800 branches were affected from around 13.45 with these branches getting back to business from 15.30 onwards. It was business as usual across the rest of the network.”

This followed downtime on 9 May, when about 2,000 Post Office branches were unable to connect to the organisation’s computer system for a few hours because of a connectivity issue.

At the time, a spokesperson at the National Federation of Subpostmasters (NFSP) said systems were down for some sub-postmasters from opening time, which can be as early as 6am for those running newsagents, until they were back up and running at 9.40am.“As many as 2,000 branches experienced problems when they tried to log on.”

The Post Office said in a statement: “There was a connectivity issue affecting a limited number of our branches for a short period of time yesterday morning. We are really sorry for any inconvenience this might have caused.”

After the second outage a spokesperson at the NFSP said: “In the past two weeks we’ve had two instances, just under a quarter of the network was affected earlier in the month, and yesterday the whole network was down for a couple of hours.”

The issues are pertinent to an ongoing court case where a group of subpostmasters are seeking damages from the Post Office for what they claim were wrongful fines and prosecutions for false accounting or theft. The first month-long trial will take place in November 2018, followed by another in March 2019.

The allegations date back over 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.

Read a timeline of the Post Office Horizon controversy

Read more on Financial applications

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