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Subpostmaster prosecutions move closer to appeal

Prosecutions are a significant step closer to being sent to the Court of Appeal as Criminal Courts Review Commission forms a group of commissioners to review them

Subpostmasters’ applications to appeal against convictions for offences including theft that led to some being sent to jail look more likely to be approved after the Criminal Courts Review Commission (CCRC) arranged a committee of commissioners meeting to consider the cases.

Subpostmasters have been sent to prison, received heavy fines and have had to live with criminal records after being prosecuted for theft and financial crimes they have always denied. Some pleaded guilty to false accounting to avoid jail, even though they were innocent and suspected the IT system they use was the cause. The subpostmasters have applied for their convictions to be overturned.

There are now more than 50 applications after about 20 more were made since the end of the epic legal battle between subpostmasters and the Post Office over the controversial Horizon IT system. 

The CCRC meeting of commissioners will be held at the end of March, when they will review whether cases of possible miscarriages of justice should go to the Court of Appeal, where they could be overturned.

According to a CCRC document, the calling of a committee signals a possibility of appeals being referred. “If a referral for appeal seems possible, the case review managers (CRM) will put the results of their review to a committee of three commissioners,” says the CCRC guidance. “If it seems there is no prospect of a referral, the CRM will put it to a single commissioner.”

The subpostmasters have said the accounting shortfalls for which they were prosecuted were caused by errors in the Horizon IT system used in branches. The Post Office has always said this could not be the case, but the recent High Court hearings proved the subpostmasters right.

The Post Office reached a £58m out-of-court settlement with 550 subpostmasters and vowed to change its ways. This came after Judge Peter Fraser, who handled the case, slammed the way the Post Office had treated subpostmasters and its denials over the potential errors in Horizon causing account shortfalls.

In his judgment, Fraser said: “This approach by the Post Office has amounted, in reality, to bare assertions and denials that ignore what has actually occurred, at least so far as the witnesses called before me in the Horizon issues trial are concerned. It amounts to the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the Earth is flat.”

In the Court of Appeal, Lord Justice Coulson likened the treatment of subpostmasters by the Post Office to the way Victorian factory owners treated their workers.

After receiving information from Judge Fraser about his concerns over the accuracy of evidence given for the Post Office by IT supplier Fujitsu during the subpostmaster prosecutions, the Director of Public Prosecutions has sent the information to police to consider. This could result in further investigation for potential perjury.

The CCRC has been reviewing the cases since 2015. There were originally 35 cases, but since the High Court battle ended, some 20 more applications for appeal have been made.

A CCRC spokesman said: “We sent an update to our applicants on Wednesday saying that we had received around 20 new Post Office applications since the High Court judgment was made – meaning we now have more than 50 applications in Post Office cases, all of which will need to be considered before the committee meeting in March.

“The letter also confirmed that we are in the process of arranging for a committee of three commissioners to meet and consider the cases together, and we expect that committee to meet in March.”

Computer Weekly first reported on the problems with Horizon in 2009, when it made public the stories of a group of subpostmasters. Soon after this, as more subpostmasters came forward, Alan Bates, former subpostmaster and lead claimant in the High Court case, formed the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance and began campaigning. Bates first contacted Computer Weekly in 2004, four years after he had first alerted the Post Office to the problems.

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

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