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Criminal Courts Review Commission to review Horizon judgment ‘swiftly’

The CCRC’s review of potentially unfair prosecutions of subpostmasters is just one of the unresolved issues in in relation to subpostmasters’ battle with the Post Office over its faulty IT system

The Criminal Courts Review Commission (CCRC) is reviewing the latest judgment in the group litigation between subpostmasters and the Post Office as part of its investigation into potential miscarriages of justice.

The latest judgment spells the beginning of the end for subpostmasters seeking redress for their suffering, at the hands of a faulty computer system, for almost two decades.

The CCRC is reviewing 35 cases where subpostmasters believe they were wrongfully prosecuted for offences such as theft and false accounting, as a result from problems with the Post Office’s Horizon IT system through which they file accounts. The CCRC review began in 2015.

The CCRC, which can refer cases back to the appeal courts, wrote to applicants this week (17 December) after the latest judgment. A spokesperson at the CCRC said: “We are now in the process of giving it detailed consideration and assessing what impact it might have on the Horizon cases which we have under review.

“We aim to carry out that assessment as swiftly as we can although, as you know, the judgment is lengthy and detailed, running to over 300 pages.”

The spokesperson could not say when decisions will be made by the CCRC, but added that all applicants will updated before the end of January 2020.

This week’s judgment in the High Court confirmed that subpostmasters were right when they claimed problems with Horizon could have caused accounting shortfalls.

This was part of a multimillion-pound group litigation that saw 550 subpostmasters take on the Post Office. The case was settled in their favour with the Post Office paying £57.7m in damages, apologising, and promising to transform how it works with subpostmasters, as well as making other concessions.

The Post Office had strenuously denied the problems could stem from the IT system to the point that the Judge Fraser, managing the case, described the organisation’s attitude as “the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the Earth is flat”.

In March, an early judgment for the first trial in the case, which examined the contractual relationship between the Post Office and subpostmasters, found the Post Office demonstrated “oppressive behaviour.” This was likened to the treatment of Victorian factory workers by a Court of Appeal judge.

The plight of some subpostmasters was first reported by Computer Weekly in 2009.

Some were forced repay money that they said they did not take, which left many with massive debts. When threatened with prison, many pleaded guilty even though they did not take money. Some that refused to plead guilty then went to prison.

The group litigation might be over, with an out-of-court settlement, but according to claimants it was “the end of the beginning”.

As well as the potential for prosecuted subpostmasters to have their cases referred for appeal by the CCRC, there have been calls for a judge-led inquiry into the controversy. 

There could be further legal consequences. Evidence from witnesses from the IT services company that supports Horizon, Fuijtsu, could also be reviewed, after the judge had concerns and passed information to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

“Based on the knowledge that I have gained, I have very grave concerns regarding veracity of evidence given by Fujitsu employees to other courts in previous proceedings about the known existence of bugs, errors and defects in the Horizon system,” said Judge Fraser, before handing down his latest judgment.

In the latest development, the head of forensic investigation firm Second Sight, Ron Warmington, hired by the Post Office in 2013 to do a detailed examination of Horizon and subpostmaster cases, has spoken out after the latest judgment.

According to a blog about the case by broadcast journalist Nick Wallis, Ron Warmington believes that cash in Post Office suspense accounts has been unfairly taken from the pockets of subpostmasters and funnelled into Post Office profits.

The Post Office has improperly enriched itself, through the decades, with funds that have passed through its own suspense accounts
Ron Warmington, Second Sight

“The Post Office has improperly enriched itself, through the decades, with funds that have passed through its own suspense accounts,” said Warmington.

“Had its own staff more diligently investigated to establish who were the rightful owners of those funds, they would have been returned to them, whether they were Post Office’s customers or its subpostmasters. When is the Post Office going to return the funds that, in effect, belonged to its subpostmasters?

“It also seems to be clear now that some of those funds could have been generated by Horizon itself, or by errors made by the Post Office’s own staff, or by those of Fujitsu. They weren’t ‘real’ losses at all. They were phantom discrepancies.”

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 subpostmasters, the Post Office published an 83-page report of its own, claiming that Second Sight’s claims were wrong.

The Post Office is a publicly owned organisation and part of the department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Computer Weekly contacted BEIS for comment on the government’s plan to redress the grievances of hundreds, potentially thousands, of subpostmasters that have been wronged.

A BEIS spokesperson said: “We welcome the announcement that a resolution has been reached between the parties to settle this long-running litigation and the steps they have taken through the mediation talks.

“We stand by to support the organisation as it looks forward to moving ahead and shaping a modern and dynamic Post Office.”

There are also calls for Horizon to be scrapped. Mark Baker of the CWU, who is a serving subpostmaster, said: “The whole matter will rumble on because there are 11,000 subpostmasters who have to work with this system daily, which has now been labelled as not being robust.”

Baker said the system either has to be heavily modified or, “more sensibly”, replaced with a new platform. “It does not have to be as sophisticated as the previous system because the number and variety of transactions is smaller,” he said.

The problems with the Horizon system were alerted to the Post Office 20 years ago by Alan Bates, a former subpostmaster who led the claimants. In 2000, just after Horizon was introduced, Bates experienced problems, which he explained to the Post Office. When the Post Office did nothing, he began a one-man campaign to get to the truth.

Bates set up a website to find others who had suffered at the hands of the system, contacted Computer Weekly, set up a campaign group, and eventually – and against the odds – took legal action against the Post Office, and won.

Earlier this week, Post Office chairman Tim Parker said: “In reaching last week’s settlement with the claimants, we accepted our past shortcomings and I, both personally and on behalf of the Post Office, sincerely apologise to those affected when we got things wrong.

“We have given a commitment to learning lessons from these events, and today’s judgment underlines the need to do so.”

Timeline of the Post Office Horizon case since Computer Weekly first reported on it in 2009

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