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Subpostmaster prosecutions to be considered by Court of Appeal for miscarriages of justice

The Criminal Cases Review Commission is referring 39 subpostmaster prosecutions to the Court of Appeal to review for possible miscarriages of justice, with further analysis on 22 more cases ongoing

The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) will refer for 39 appeals from subpostmasters to have their criminal convictions appealed to the Court of Appeal. The appeals are made on the abuse of process argument.

“The abuse of process argument is based on issues with the Post Office’s Horizon computer system which may have had an impact on the cases referred,” said the CCRC.

The decision comes five years after the CCRC began considering whether prosecutions of subpostmasters by the Post Office, for theft and false accounting, were possible miscarriages of justice that could be overturned by Court of Appeal.

The announcement came after a committee of commissioners spent two days reviewing applications from former subpostmasters to have the criminal convictions appealed.

Over a period spanning around 20 years, subpostmasters were prosecuted for theft and false accounting, with many going bankrupt and some sent to jail. They claimed that accounting shortfalls were not caused by them but by faults in the Post Office’s retail and accounting computer system that they use in branches.

Many pleaded guilty of false accounting and repaid the apparent shortfalls, even though they did not commit the offence, to avoid prison sentences. They spent many years with criminal records, unable to work, suffered ill health due to stress and lost their life savings.

The CCRC can only refer a case for appeal if it considers that there is new evidence or a new argument that raises a real possibility that the appeal court will quash the convictions. The 39 cases to be referred are among a total of 61 applications to the CCRC from Post Office applicants. 

“In relation to the remaining 22 cases, the CCRC has further work to do before it will be in a position to announce decisions as to whether or not it can refer those cases,” said the CCRC. 

Helen Pitcher, chairman at the CCRC, said:“This is by some distance the largest number of cases we will ever have referred for appeal at one time. Our team has got through a huge amount of work, particularly since the judgment in December,  in order to identify the grounds on which we are referring these cases... we will continue to do whatever we need to in order to make decisions in the remaining cases as quickly as we reasonably can.”

The Post Office introduced the Horizon IT system from Fujitsu in 1999/2000, replacing traditional manual processes in branch accounting. Problems began happening in branches soon after.

A recent High Court legal battle resulted in the subpostmasters being proved right about system errors, while the Post Office’s argument that the computer system could not be to blame was rubbished. The Post Office conceded in the multimillion-pound group litigation and agreed to pay £57.75m damages, apologise and change how it works with subpostmasters.

Judge Peter Fraser, in the High Court, said the Post Office’s denial that Horizon faults could not cause accounting shortfalls amounted “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.”

When reviewing an application from the Post Office to appeal a judgement in the trial, Court of Appeal judge Lord Justice Coulson likened the treatment of subpostmasters by the Post Office to the way Victorian factory owners treated their workers.

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, a former subpostmaster, 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 (see timeline below).

The CCRC began reviewing 27 applications in 2015, but the number has increased over the five years since. A total of 61 cases were reviewed by the CCRC. 

The number increased recently following the conclusion of the High Court group litigation that proved the subpostmasters who blamed the Post Office’s Horizon computer system for accounting shortfalls were right, and that the Post Office was wrong to blame them.

In January this year, the CCRC arranged the committee of commissioners meeting to consider subpostmasters’ applications to appeal against convictions.

Clearing the names of subpostmasters prosecuted for unexplained accounting shortfalls is one of the key demands from subpostmasters affected, some MPs and campaigners.

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

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