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How subpostmasters made legal history with biggest referral of potential miscarriages of justice

Subpostmasters seeking redress of prosecutions at the hands of an IT system force the biggest ever UK referral of cases of potential miscarriages of justice to the Court of Appeal

The referral to the court of appeal of 39 cases of potential wrongful prosecution of subpostmasters, for theft, fraud and false accounting, is the biggest group of probable miscarriages of justice in UK history, according to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC). 

This group will get even bigger, with 22 more cases under review and only delayed because they were more recently taken up by the CCRC, and more potential applicants have contacted the CCRC in the days since the historic announcement was made.

“This is completely unprecedented,” Helen Pitcher, chairman at the CCRC, told Computer Weekly. She said the previous biggest group referral comprised 10 cases.  

“This is very unusual and of course we still have the other 22 cases under review, and more cases are coming to us with initial inquiries as a result of the announcement,” said Pitcher. 

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. 

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 appeals have been referred by the CCRC to the Court of Appeal on the grounds of abuse of process, which is possible because of the evidence of computer faults causing the accounting shortfalls. The computer evidence is key in this. “Abuse of process is very simple,” said Pitcher. “As the dictionary says, ‘when something seems so unfair or so unjust that it should put a stay to prosecution’.” 

Application increase

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 recently increased 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. 

“Things changed significantly with the judgements,” said Pitcher. “We put it on hold once we knew other judgments were coming. We had done a lot of work at that point but thought there was no point in us doing any more until these judgements were out. 

“We had a team set up and ready to go as soon as we knew what was happening,” she said.

The CCRC decided it needed to look at all the cases individually because the facts were different in all of them. Pitcher said the 22 applications in the group that were not referred to the Court of Appeal had been due to the timing of when the CCRC received them, with lots of preparatory work to be done.

Pitcher brings to her role at the CCRC an academic and professional background that mixes legal, commercial, charity and education. She  previously chaired the Queen’s Council selection panel as well as corporate boards. Pitcher has a firm grasp of law and corporate responsibility, and said that because of her professional interest in miscarriages of justice, the CCRC role is her dream job.

Abuse of process

On the referrals of the subpostmaster prosecution, she said: “Our argument is that this is an abuse of process, and if you are getting so many cases which all relate to an IT system that has been put in, somebody somewhere should have been asking if this is the fault of the individual or the system, and if it is the system, what does that mean?

“Whether that happened or not I don’t know, but as a member of various boards over the years, I would say if I was on the Post Office board I would have been saying to my head of legal, ‘I need you to come to the board and give us an account of how there could be so many cases coming under the same category’.”

She said that presupposes it went to the board and was highlighted to them. Senior executives at the Post Office were aware of it. “The former CEO Paula Vennells spoke quite openly about these cases in the press,” said Pitcher. 

If the right questions had been asked at the right time, the suffering of hundreds of subpostmasters could have been prevented. “Whenever you are in a business with money moving over the counter, you will always get some element of theft,” she said. “Whether that leads to people being cynical and believing that all shortfalls are theft I don’t know. But the board should have been asking some penetrating questions.” 

On the right of the Post Office to prosecutions without police involvement, Pitcher said the management would probably be advised to investigate shortfalls and use internal disciplinary measures, but pass them on to police if they think there has been a crime. “Otherwise, you are judge and jury,” she said. 

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

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