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Blow to government review of Post Office scandal as key forensic accountants refuse to support it

The government’s proposed review of the Post Office IT scandal has received a further setback as forensic accountants join subpostmasters in refusing to back it

The forensic accountancy firm hired by the Post Office to examine the Horizon IT system and supporting processes will not support the government’s announced review of the scandal because of “inadequate terms of reference”.

This followed last week’s announcement by the Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA), which spearheaded the campaign for subpostmasters, that it will not cooperate with the review, which falls well short of the judge-led inquiry demanded by the JFSA, MPs and other campaigners.

The review, into what has been described as one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in UK history, and its terms of reference were described as “pathetic” and “pointless” by subpostmasters and MPs.

Subpostmasters were prosecuted and even sent to prison for crimes such as theft and false accounting as a result of accounting shortfalls that were caused by computer errors.

Second Sight, the forensic accounting firm that investigated Horizon at the Post Office’s request and in doing so revealed its flaws, said: “We see no point in supporting a review with such inadequate terms of reference – and we will not do so.”

After Second Sight revealed problems with the Horizon system and supporting processes, which could cause accounting shortfalls, the Post Office dropped its investigation. The Post Office even produced an 83-page response to Second Sight’s 96-page independent report that claimed it was wrong. Second Sight said its investigation was terminated by Post Office when it began to ask difficult questions, and certain documents it requested were not made available by the Post Office.

“In our opinion, it is essential to look at the conduct of the Post Office over at least the last seven years and to hold the managers and directors in-post during this period to account,” said Second Sight.

In 2009, Computer Weekly revealed that subpostmasters were being blamed for losses that they claimed were caused by errors in the Horizon computer system. 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).

A multimillion-pound High Court trial was concluded in December, with 550 subpostmasters being proved right in their claims that the Horizon IT system they used in branches caused shortfalls. The Post Office was castigated by the judge for its treatment of subpostmasters and its refusal to admit that the computer system could be at fault, although it knew it could.

Second Sight said: “Based on our experience, any review of the actions of the Post Office must be supported by the power to compel the production of documents, rather than rely on assurances of cooperation.”

During its investigation, Second Sight identified potential miscarriages of justice where subpostmasters were prosecuted for theft, false accounting, or both.

“Despite only limited documents being made available to us, we said in 2015 that we were concerned about possible misconduct by prosecutors acting on behalf of the Post Office and that there was evidence of possible miscarriages of justice,” it said.

The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) this month sent a total of 47 cases of potential miscarriages of justice to the Court of Appeal for review, along with its statement of the reasons for recommending them.

Second Sight said the government’s role in the scandal at an organisation it owns  must also be investigated. “There are also other issues of concern,” it said. “These include the lack of effective oversight by Parliament, despite full knowledge in 2015 of many of the issues now determined by the High Court.”

Subpostmasters are currently raising funds to take their complaints to the Parliamentary Ombudsman. According to the House of Commons Library Briefing, The Parliamentary Ombudsman: role and proposals for reform: “The Parliamentary Ombudsman can investigate complaints from members of the public who believe that they have suffered injustice because of maladministration by government departments or certain public bodies.

“Maladministration can be defined as the public body not having acted properly or fairly, or having given a poor service and not put things right.”

The subpostmasters are almost halfway to reaching their target of raising the £98,000 they need to take this action, including the cost of legal support. If you want to support the subpostmasters taking on the government to redress their grievances, you can pledge here. The money will only paid once the target is met.

Following their court victory against the Post Office, the subpostmaster claimants were awarded £57.75m in damages, but after legal costs were taken out, they were left with just £11m. The JFSA is demanding that the government pay the legal costs to leave victims with a fairer settlement, but the government has refused.

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

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