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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.”
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.”
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
- May 2009: Bankruptcy, prosecution and disrupted livelihoods – postmasters tell their story.
- September 2009: Postmasters form action group after accounts shortfall.
- November 2009: Post Office theft case deferred over IT questions.
- February 2011: Post Office faces legal action over alleged accounting system failures.
- October 2011: 85 subpostmasters seek legal support in claims against Post Office computer system.
- June 2012: Post Office launches external review of system at centre of legal disputes.
- January 2013: Post Office admits Horizon system needs more investigation.
- January 2013: Post Office announces amnesty for Horizon evidence.
- January 2013: Post Office wants to get to bottom of IT system allegations.
- June 2013: Investigation into Post Office accounting system to drill down on strongest cases.
- July 2013: Post Office Horizon system investigation reveals concerns.
- October 2013: End in sight for subpostmaster claims against Post Office’s Horizon accounting system.
- October 2013: Former Lord Justice of Appeal Hooper joins Post Office Horizon investigation.
- November 2013: 150 subpostmasters file claims over “faulty” Horizon accounting system.
- September 2014: Fresh questions raised over Post Office IT system’s role in fraud cases.
- December 2014: MPs blast Post Office over IT system investigation and remove backing.
- December 2014: Why MPs lost faith in the Post Office’s IT investigation, but vowed to fight on.
- December 2014: MPs to debate subpostmaster IT injustice claims.
- December 2014: MP accuses Post Office of acting “duplicitously” in IT investigation.
- January 2015: MPs force inquiry into Post Office subpostmaster mediation scheme.
- January 2015: Post Office faces grilling by MPs over Horizon accounting system.
- February 2015: Post Office CIO will talk to any subpostmaster about IT problems, promises CEO.
- March 2015: Post Office ends working group for IT system investigation day before potentially damaging report.
- March 2015: MPs seek reassurance over Post Office mediation scheme.
- March 2015: Retiring MP aims to uncover truth of alleged Post Office computer system problems.
- April 2015: Post Office failed to investigate account shortfalls before legal action, report claims.
- April 2015: Criminal Courts Review Commission set to review subpostmasters’ claims of wrongful prosecution.
- May 2015: IT system related to subpostmaster prosecutions under review by CCRC.
- June 2015: Post Office looking to replace controversial Horizon system with IBM, says MP.
- July 2015: Campaigners call for independent inquiry into Post Office Horizon IT system dispute.
- October 2015: James Arbuthnot takes Post Office IT fight to House of Lords.
- November 2015: The union that represents Post Office subpostmasters has warned of a problem with the Horizon accounting system.
- November 2015: An email from Post Office IT support reveals a problem with the Horizon system and supporting processes that could lead to accounting errors.
- November 2015: Group litigation against Post Office being prepared in Horizon dispute.
- February 2016: Post Office faces group litigation over Horizon IT as subpostmasters fund class action.
- June 2016: Post Office chairman Tim Parker says there would be “considerable risk” associated with changing its Horizon computer system.
- November 2016: The legal team hired by a group of subpostmasters will take their case to the next stage.
- January 2017: The group action against the Post Office that alleges subpostmasters have been wrongly punished for accounting errors gets a green light from the High Court of Justice.
- March 2017: 1,000 subpostmasters apply to join IT-related group litigation against Post Office.
- April 2017: Investigation into claims of miscarriages of justice in relation to a Post Office accounting system has appointed a forensic accountant firm.
- May 2017: Hundreds of subpostmasters have applied to join IT-related legal action since March.
- July 2017: Post Office defence in computer system legal case due this week.
- August 2017: Campaigners submit initial evidence in group litigation against Post Office over controversial Horizon IT system.
- October 2017: Subpostmasters’ group action against the Post Office reaches an important milestone.
- November 2017: An end is in sight for subpostmasters’ campaign against alleged wrongful prosecution, which they blame on a faulty computer system.
- November 2017: The High Court judge managing the subpostmasters versus Post Office legal case over an allegedly faulty computer system tells legal teams to cooperate.
- January 2018: Forensic investigation into Post Office IT system at centre of legal case nears completion.
- April 2018: Criminal Cases Review Commission forensic examination of the IT system at the centre of a legal case against the Post Office has raised further questions.
- May 2018: Post Office branches unable to connect to Horizon computer system for several hours after morning opening time.
- October 2018: After over a decade of controversy, next week marks the beginning of a court battle between subpostmasters and the Post Office.
- November 2018: Case against Post Office in relation to allegedly faulty computer system begins in High Court.
- November 2018: High Court case in which subpostmasters are suing the Post Office has revealed a known problem with a computer system at the core of the dispute.
- November 2018: A High Court trial, where subpostmasters are suing the Post Office for damages caused by an allegedly faulty IT system, ends second week.
- November 2018: Post Office director admits to Horizon errors and not sharing details with subpostmaster network.
- November 2018: The High Court trial in which subpostmasters are suing the Post Office has reached an important stage.
- December 2018: CCRC may hold off subpostmaster decision until after Post Office Horizon trial.
- December 2018: Court case where subpostmasters are suing the Post Office set to span at least four trials and extend into 2020.
- January 2019: Subpostmasters’ campaign group attacks Post Office CEO Paula Vennells’ New Year honour amid ongoing court case.
- January 2019: Thousands of known errors on controversial Post Office computer system to be revealed.
- March 2019: Tech under spotlight at High Court in second subpostmasters versus Post Office trial.
- March 2019: Post Office considered Horizon IT system “high-risk”, court told.
- March 2019: CCRC watching Post Office Horizon trial closely.
- March 2019: Judge rules that Post Office showed “oppressive behaviour” in response to claimants accused of accounting errors they blamed on Horizon IT system.
- March 2019: Post Office “lacked humanity” in the treatment of subpostmasters, says peer.
- March 2019: A High Court judge heard that the Post Office did not investigate a computer system error that could cause losses, despite being offered evidence.
- March 2019: The Post Office legal team in the case brought by more than 500 subpostmasters has called for the judge to be recused after questioning his impartiality.
- March 2019: A senior civil servant asked the Post Office to repay public money it had wrongly allocated to paying legal costs.
- April 2019: Subpostmaster claimants’ legal team makes application for the Post Office to pay millions of pounds of costs associated with trial.
- April 2019: Post Office to appeal judgment from first Horizon trial.
- April 2019: The Post Office’s claim that the judge overseeing the case concerning its controversial Horizon IT system was biased has been dismissed – but will now be considered by the Court of Appeal.
- April 2019: MP questions government over Post Office Horizon case.
- April 2019: Government says no conflict of interest in trial despite Post Office chairman’s dual role.
- May 2019: The Court of Appeal has refused the Post Office’s application to appeal a major decision in the Horizon IT trial.
- May 2019: The Post Office has applied for permission to appeal judgments from the first trial in its IT-related legal battle with subpostmasters.
- May 2019: The judge in the Post Office Horizon trial has ordered the organisation to pay the legal costs of its courtroom adversaries, and refused to give permission to appeal a major judgment.
- June 2019: Post Office asks Court of Appeal for permission to appeal judgment in first Horizon trial.
- July 2019: The Post Office has admitted that some subpostmasters are at risk of accounts not balancing due to an error it does not understand.
- July 2019: Problem revealed during High Court trial left subpostmaster with £18,000 surplus after IT system failed to register full amount of cash scanned in.
- August 2019: Subpostmasters suffering slow running and frozen terminals while Post Office searches for a fix to issues apparently caused by a software update.
- August 2019: The Post Office has fixed the latest problems with its Horizon system, affecting hundreds of branches.
- October 2019: A High Court judgment for a trial that focused on the Post Office’s IT system at the centre of a multimillion-pound litigation will be announced early next month.
- November 2019: The Court of Appeal has rejected a Post Office application to appeal judgments made in its multimillion-pound battle with subpostmasters over IT system failures.
- November 2019: Peer calls for clear-out of Post Office board after Court of Appeal confirms major court defeat.
- December 2019: The Post Office has settled its long-running legal dispute with subpostmasters, and will pay £57.75m in damages.
- December 2019: Subpostmasters ended their legal battle with the Post Office at the optimal time, according to the lawyer that managed the High Court action.
- December 2019: Subpostmasters proved right on IT system failures as calls for full public inquiry mount.
- December 2019: Criminal Courts Review Commission to review Horizon judgment “swiftly”.
- December 2019: National Federation of Subpostmasters cries foul after court ruling on controversial computer system.
- December 2019: Former Post Office CEO apologises to subpostmasters over Horizon scandal.
- December 2019: Call for former Post Office CEO to step down from public roles after IT court battle lost.
- January 2020: Fujitsu must face scrutiny following Post Office Horizon trial judgment.
- January 2020: Subpostmaster group calls for government to pay legal costs for Horizon trial.
- January 2020: Why subpostmasters are calling on the government to pay Horizon trial costs.
- January 2020: Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy says it did not make decisions in the Post Office’s recent court battle.
- January 2020: Government should not be allowed to dismiss subpostmasters’ claims over Horizon IT scandal.
- January 2020: Police sent information about potential Fujitsu staff perjury in subpostmaster prosecutions.
- January 2020: 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.
- January 2020: Alan Bates: The “details man” the Post Office paid the price for ignoring.
- February 2020: The government has refused to pay the huge legal costs subpostmasters incurred in their battle with the government-owned Post Office, which they won.
- February 2020: Members of Parliament seeking a public inquiry into the Post Office Horizon scandal face huge challenges, but pressure and time could force justice.
- February 2020: Calls for inquiry into Post Office IT scandal increase in Parliament, with cross-party support.
- February 2020: Care Quality Commission to review concerns over Paula Vennells’ appointment after they were raised by a former NHS consultant psychiatrist.
- February 2020: Government admits it was too passive managing Post Office as parliamentary pressure builds.
- February 2020: Minister says Post Office IT experts misled the government when it asked questions about subpostmasters’ concerns over Horizon IT system.
- March 2020: Boris Johnson commits to “getting to the bottom of” Post Office Horizon IT scandal.
- March 2020: Boris Johnson’s commitment to inquiry into Post Office scandal in doubt.
- March 2020: MPs call on PM to commit to full public inquiry into Post Office Horizon IT scandal.
- March 2020: Those who did not play by the rules in Post Office Horizon scandal “should face prosecution”.
- March 2020: MPs told to hold to account those responsible for Post Office Horizon IT scandal.
- March 2020: The Post Office has sparked anger with secret settlements with subpostmasters outside the recent legal action against it.
- March 2020: Labour MP Karl Turner tells Computer Weekly that the Post Office Horizon scandal is the most grotesque version of predatory capitalism he has ever seen.
- March 2020: MP Kevan Jones has warned a government minister not to repeat the mistakes of predecessors in relation to the Post Office Horizon IT scandal.
- March 2020: Criminal Cases Review Commission to use Microsoft Teams to ensure review of subpostmaster prosecutions is held on time.
- March 2020: Post Office postpones subpostmaster compensation scheme amid Covid-19 crisis.
- March 2020: Meeting reviewing subpostmaster applications to appeal criminal prosecutions moves into second day.
- March 2020: Subpostmaster prosecutions to be considered by Court of Appeal for miscarriages of justice.
- March 2020: 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.
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