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MPs to examine fairness of private prosecutions in light of Post Office IT scandal

Parliamentary Justice Committee to hold short inquiry into the rules and regulations surrounding private organisations’ ability to initiate criminal proceedings

MPs sitting on the Justice Committee are to examine the regulations surrounding private prosecutions after subpostmaster prosecutions by the Post Office were sent to the Court of Appeal.

The Post Office’s method of pursuing subpostmasters who had unexplained losses in their branch accounts included threatening and pursuing private prosecutions.

There have been many hundreds of prosecutions since the Post Office introduced its Horizon accounting and retail system in 2000. Since then, many subpostmasters experienced unexplained losses, which they suspected was caused by the computer system. But the Post Office blamed them and used its power to prosecute them.

In 2009, Computer Weekly revealed that subpostmasters were forced to pay back the unexplained losses and some received prison sentences. There have also been suicides linked to the scandal (see timeline below).

But a recent multimillion-pound High Court trial proved subpostmasters were right that errors in the Horizon system could cause accounting shortfalls.

The Post Office used its private prosecution powers to take subpostmasters to court without investigating their claims. It based the prosecutions on evidence from Horizon, which has now been proved to be potentially flawed. 

A total of 47 cases of subpostmasters being prosecuted by the Post Office have so far been referred to the Court of Appeal by the Criminal Cases Review Commission as potential miscarriages of justice – but there could be many more. According to the Post Office’s own figures, there are potentially 900 subpostmaster prosecutions that relied on Horizon data.

In March this year, following the referral of the 47 cases to the Court of Appeal, the CCRC said it had asked the Ministry of Justice to review private prosecution powers.

At the time, CCRC chair Helen Pitcher told Computer Weekly that Post Office 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. 

The Justice Committee said in a statement: “The committee will focus on the effectiveness of existing safeguards and the merits of additional safeguards that could be used to limit the potential for the right to bring private prosecutions by large organisations to cause miscarriages of justice.”

The committee will not review the subpostmaster cases, but will “look at the potential consequences of an organisation investigating a case, and prosecuting it, while that organisation is also the alleged victim of the offence”.

The deadline for written evidence is 1 July and an oral evidence session will take place on 7 July.

Separately, law firm Aria Grace Law is working as part of a team that includes Paul Marshall, a barrister at Cornerstone Barristers, on behalf of subpostmasters who are appealing their convictions in the Court Of Appeal.

The team of barristers and solicitors will work on these appeals on a pro bono basis. “We’ve spoken to so many people whose lives have been ruined as a result of this scandal,” said Nick Gould, partner at Aria Grace Law. “It’s the ultimate David v Goliath battle. We want to help because we can and this is very important.”

The team is so far representing three appellants.

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

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