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What next for subpostmasters’ miscarriage of justice appeals?

Computer Weekly looks at the next stages in the process to clear the names of subpostmasters wrongly prosecuted for the crimes of theft and false accounting

The referral to the Court of Appeal of subpostmaster appeals against their prosecution by the Post Office has initiated a process, which under the current Covid-19 pandemic could take a few weeks longer than usual.

On 26 March, the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) referred 39 appeals from former subpostmasters to have their criminal convictions appealed at the Court of Appeal on the grounds of abuse of process by prosecutors. The subpostmaster appellants have waited years for the chance to clear their names and are anxious for details of what happens next and when.

The current Covid-19 crisis could slow things by several weeks. In normal circumstances it would take two to four weeks for a CCRC referral to reach the Court of Appeal, but due to requirement for the Court of Appeal to be sent physical documents, this will slow things down because of limitations on access amid the current pandemic.

“The decision has been taken but the referrals themselves will only be officially made when the papers are sent to the relevant appeal court. A total of 35 are going to the Court of Appeal and 4 are going to the Crown Court,” said a CCRC spokesman.

Where the appeals are heard depends on where the prosecutions occurred. Crown Court prosecution appeals go back to the Crown Court while Magistrates' court prosecutions go to the Court of Appeal. “The Covid-19 restrictions that are in place may mean that process will take some weeks longer,” said the CCRC spokesman.

These documents will be used by the CCRC to give the Court of Appeal its reasons for refer the cases on the grounds of abuse of process

Subpostmasters were prosecuted by the Post Office, as long ago as 2001, for alleged crimes including false accounting and theft when the Horizon IT system they used had recorded accounting shortfalls. Some went to prison and many had their lives ruined through lost businesses, ill health and huge fines.

High Court judgement

Computer Weekly made this public in 2009, after an investigation (see timeline below) and a High Court judgment in December proved the subpostmasters were right in blaming the computer system for errors and the Post Office was wrong in blaming them.

On top of the 39 applications referred, there are another 22 appeals that the CCRC is yet to make a decision on, with the review of these to continue. These applications require more work by the CCRC and are unlikely to be completed at the same time because they arrived with the CCRC at different times. Some arrived with the statuary body in December following the High Court judgment, which vindicated subpostmasters, and some applied even more recently.

Again a lot depends on access to material which could be slowed down in the current circumstances. The CCRC is likely to organise another committee to review these cases or may do several smaller committees.

Following the referrals Helen Pitcher, chairman at the CCRC, told Computer Weekly this is the largest number of cases the CCRC has ever referred for appeal at one time. This is a complex job in normal circumstances and the Covid-19 pandemic will slow things.

But the CCRC is working to overcome issues. For example, it was determined to stick to its planned committee date to review the appeals, 61 in total, on 24 March, despite the Covid-19 crisis, so it used Microsoft Teams collaboration software to allow participants to take part remotely. This enable the commissioners to make their decisions, which were announced two days later.

Once the initial 39 appeals and any of the 22 that are referred later reach the Court of Appeal, it might look at them in batches or a single group. It is possible but unlikely it will hear them individually

It generally takes six to 12 months after the Court of Appeal receives the documents for a hearing date with three judges to be set.

Legal representation

Once the Court of Appeal announces a date for the appeal hearings, like in a court case, the two sides will have legal representation to make their arguments. It is possible, although very unlikely, that the defence, the Post Office in these cases, would not contest the appeals. This would not mean the convictions would be quashed automatically.

There could be a strong argument for a single council to represent all appellants – the more complicated the longer it takes, but not likely to be over five days

Unlike full court cases, hearings do not last long and if past cases are considered it is highly unlikely to go longer than a week.

The CCRC’s decision to refer applications for appeal was something Tracy Felstead had waited for her entire adult life. In 2001 she was prosecuted for theft and false accounting and sent to prison for six months.

“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,” she said. “Now, for the first time, I can see light at the end of the tunnel.”

Criminal record

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.

Jo Hamilton, a former subpostmaster in Hampshire, said the CCRC’s announcement that will see her conviction for false accounting appealed was 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.

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

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