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What the Court of Appeal referrals mean to those who campaigned for justice for subpostmasters

Former subpostmasters and their supporters describe their feelings after their appeals against convictions – some of which are nearly 20 years old – get sent to the Court of Appeal

The Criminal Courts Review Commission’s (CCRC) decision to refer 39 potential miscarriages of justice to the Court of Appeal is a legal landmark, but what does it mean to those affected and the subpostmasters who have campaigned for justice for them?

The number of referrals is likely to hit at least 60, with 22 more cases under review and more potential applicants making inquiries to the CCRC, which described the number of referrals in the group as unprecedented.

The prosecutions of the subpostmasters who will have their cases reviewed by the Court of Appeal date back as far as 2001, which was a year after the controversial Horizon accounting and retail IT system was introduced to branches, replacing manual accounting methods.

It wasn’t long until subpostmasters began experiencing unexplained losses, which they were blamed for. Prison sentences, community service and huge fines, among other life-changing punishments, followed. A recently concluded High Court legal battle proved that the IT system, not the subpostmasters, was to blame for the accounting shortfalls.

In his two judgments, spanning thousands of pages, Judge Peter Fraser in the High Court tore into the Post Office’s contracts with subpostmasters and exposed the significant shortfalls of the Horizon IT system. While this didn’t surprise campaigners, it was an overwhelming vindication of their claims over two decades.

In 2009, Computer Weekly revealed that subpostmasters were being blamed for losses that they claimed were caused by computer errors. The Post Office always denied this and prosecuted subpostmasters, with many forced to pay back the losses and some even going to prison (see timeline below).

The High Court judgment was vindication for the subpostmasters, and the CCRC’s decision to refer applications for appeal was something Tracy Felstead had waited for her entire adult life. She was sent to prison for six months in 2001 when she was prosecuted for theft and false accounting.

“I was over the moon with the decision the CCRC has made, it’s been a long time coming and I’ve waited all my adult life for this moment,” she told Computer Weekly.

“Through this whole mess I had been worried we would never get here, all I have ever wanted is that piece of paper with nothing on it instead of having to explain my criminal record, that should never have existed in the first place, to every job I applied for.

“Now, for the first time, I can see light at the end of the tunnel. It means the world to me that [if my conviction is quashed] I will actually be able to get on with my life.”

Wendy Buffrey was prosecuted for false accounting. She had to do 150 hours of community service and paid the Post Office £36,000 that it claimed she had lost. Her business was ruined and she has lived with a criminal record since 2010. She said the CCRC announcement was a “wonderful” moment, but her long-held distrust of the Post Office means it is not a conclusion.

“It was wonderful to hear my case was accepted for appeal. I must admit to crying quite a lot, but the realisation then hits home that this is still going to be a long wait yet again,” she said.

“Then to find that some of the others are still waiting to be for their cases to be put through is hard, plus the likelihood is that the Post Office may yet again fight us through the appeal court.”

It was wonderful to hear my case was accepted for appeal. I must admit to crying quite a lot, but the realisation then hits home that this is still going to be a long wait yet again
Wendy Buffrey, former subpostmaster

Such has been the effect of carrying a criminal record for something she didn’t do that Jo Hamilton, a former subpostmaster in Hampshire, said the CCRC’s announcement that will see her conviction for false accounting appealed is one of the biggest days of her life.

Hamilton had a grocery store with a Post Office attached. When she was unable to explain accounting shortfalls and was faced with the prospect of a prison sentence, Hamilton pleaded guilty to false accounting, although she did nothing wrong.

“All the years of campaigning and fighting to try to clear my name, and now the CCRC is referring at least 39 of us to the Court of Appeal in spite of pleading guilty. It’s a very significant moment,” she said.

Hamilton was one of the initial group of subpostmasters interviewed by Computer Weekly in 2008 as part of an article published early the following year, which led to subpostmasters being aware of how wide Horizon problems were. Prior to that, each subpostmaster who approached the Post Office with problems with the Horizon system were told they were the only person experiencing them.

Lee Castleton was also in the first group interviewed by Computer Weekly. He was postmaster at the Bridlington Post Office in East Yorkshire. The Post Office spent £320,000 suing him for the £25,000 he was falsely accused of stealing. He was not part of the group of applicants to the CCRC, but his case is one that has been cited by campaigners as evidence of the Post Office’s aggressive methods.

“These people, waiting for justice, have waited for far too long and even now the Post Office will never just admit it and hold up their hands,” he said following the CCRC’s announcement. “[Subpostmasters] have suffered enough. Good, honest, upright people punished over and over again. They should have been protected.”

Tim McCormack, a former subpostmaster who has campaigned for justice, said the CCRC’s decision was inevitable given the evidence. “There never was any doubt in my mind from the day I read the transcript of Seema Misra’s trial in 2015 that the CCRC would return her conviction as unsafe.” Seema Misra was sent to prison while pregnant after being found guilty of theft in 2010.

McCormack said the ramifications could be far-reaching for the Post Office. “While it was frustrating that it took so long, the CCRC decision to return all convictions based on a generic cause of abuse of process is perhaps a more satisfactory outcome as it will certainly result in even greater scrutiny of the behaviour of the Post Office in dealing with these cases,” he added.

Parliament support for subpostmasters

Over the years, there has been support in Parliament for the cause of subpostmasters punished for unexplained accounting errors.

James Arbuthnot, former MP for Hampshire North East, is a long-time campaigner for justice for the subpostmasters affected. Now Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom, he became a supporter of the subpostmasters when, as an MP, he was contacted by constituent Jo Hamilton.

“In one sense, the exoneration of the subpostmasters had already happened, through the judgements in the High Court and Court of Appeal,” said Arbuthnot. 

“But the personal consequences for the subpostmasters remained all too real. They were unable to travel to the US, unable to get jobs or insurance, unable to be alone in classes with schoolchildren – they remained convicted criminals. And let’s not forget, they still are until the Court of Appeal reconsiders their cases.

“So the decision by the CCRC was a crucial formal step in this dreadful story, a vital part of the jigsaw of the restoration of justice.”

He said he was pleased that the CCRC referred those who had actually chosen to plead guilty, as well as those who were found guilty by a court. “That decision alone revealed a horror at the behaviour of the Post Office – an implication of undue pressure amounting to intolerable bullying. It was a reflection of the reaction that so many of us have had for so long, a vindication of the stance that Alan Bates has personified so bravely,” he added.

Bates is the former subpostmaster who started and won the multimillion-pound legal action against the Post Office. He lost his business as a result of the Horizon problems when the Post Office terminated his contract because he refused to roll over accounts with unexplained losses.

He was not prosecuted, but his determination to expose the Post Office’s behaviour helped get calls for justice to this point. Reacting to the CCRC’s decision, he said: “I am absolutely delighted for all those who, for years, have had their lives overshadowed by totally unjust convictions.”

He added that it adds weight to demands for a judge-led public inquiry, which is something that is gaining support in Parliament.

“The decision reached by the CCRC is further proof that nothing less will suffice now, other than a judge-led inquiry into the failings of the Post Office and those faceless mandarins in the government responsible for allowing the Post Office to wield such abuse of power. Those who made or failed to make decisions must be held accountable and, where appropriate, be met by the full force of the law,” he said.

There is unfinished business for Bates, with demands for the government – which owns the Post Office – to pay the costs that the subpostmaster claiments paid to take the High Court action against the Post Office.  

When the Post Office conceded defeat in the group litigation brought by Bates and more than 500 other former subpostmasters, it paid £57.75m in damages. But because of the method used by subpostmasters to bring the action, they had to pay their own costs despite their victory. This left around £11m for subpostmasters, which doesn’t even scratch the surface of what they lost, never mind compensating them for suffering.

There are also demands for the executives and government officials who allowed the scandal to happen to be properly investigated.

‘Biggest miscarriage of justice’

Another lesson learned during the scandal is that the National Federation of Subpostmasters (NFSP), the organisation that represents subpostmasters, is not fit for purpose. It failed to support subpostmasters who claimed their losses were down to the computer system.

In contrast, the Communications Workers Union (CWU) has emerged as a champion for subpostmasters. It was the CWU that has investigated individual cases and offered support to affected subpostmasters.

The CWU’s postmaster branch secretary Mark Baker, who is a serving subpostmaster, was described by Judge Fraser in the High Court judgement as “redoubtable” for his campaigning on the behalf of subpostmasters.

Following the CCRC decision, Baker told Computer Weekly: “The CWU would like to pass on its respect and grateful thanks to the founder of the JFSA [Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance] group Alan Bates, all the participants in the GLO [group litigation order] and all those postmasters who stood up and fought back, which brought about such a stunning series of victories in the High Court.”

There has clearly been a serious breakdown of governance and due process within the Post Office
Mark Baker, CWU

He said once the Court of Appeal formally quash these convictions, it will represent the biggest case of miscarriage of justice the UK has ever had.

“There has clearly been a serious breakdown of governance and due process within the Post Office, the department of business energy and industrial strategy, the crown prosecution service, Parliament – including successive PMs – during the life of this scandal, with a few notable exceptions of campaigning MPs.”

MPs and former MPs including Arbuthnot, Labour’s Kevan Jones and Conservative Andrew Bridgen are examples. Labour’s Karl Turner and the Conservative’s Lucy Allan are two others who have more recently taken up the cause.

Like Bates, Baker believes a judge-led public inquiry is the only way to find out how the scandal could be allowed to happen, why it happened, who allowed it to happen and how something similar can be avoided in the future.

“This is such a mess that a judge-led public inquiry is the only way that the public will be able to have the confidence that this matter has been properly investigated, causes identified, the guilty persons identified and dealt with and measures recommended that will ensure that this kind of dreadful behaviour by one of Britain’s most trusted brands can never happen again,” said Baker.

He said the final words should be reserved for those subpostmasters who were hounded and convicted. “They have fought a long and traumatic battle to clear their names. Some did not make it to see their justice, but their names will be cleared posthumously along with all the others, and once again they will have unblemished characters,” he said.

“The UK collectively should hang its head in shame over the treatment of one of society’s most dedicated, loyal and trusting public servants – the humble subpostmaster,” he added.

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

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