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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.
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
- 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.
- January 2018: Forensic investigation into Post Office IT system at centre of legal case nears completion.
- April 2018: Criminal Cases Review Commission forensic examination of the IT system at the centre of a legal case against the Post Office has raised further questions.
- May 2018: Post Office branches unable to connect to Horizon computer system for several hours after morning opening time