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Justice for subpostmasters as wrongful criminal convictions are set to be quashed

The Post Office has chosen not to contest 44 out of 47 appeals, meaning most are likely to have their names cleared, but others still face a Court of Appeal battle for justice

More than 40 subpostmasters wrongly convicted of crimes as a result of errors in the Post Office’s accounting system are set to have their convictions quashed after the Post Office decided it will not contest appeals, but a few will continue towards a full Court of Appeal hearing.

At the time of writing, Computer Weekly understood that the Post Office will not contest around 44 appeals, making the clearing of those subpostmasters’ names likely. In June, a total of 47 cases of potential miscarriages of justice were sent to the Court of Appeal by the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) in England. Computer Weekly understands three appeals have not been conceded  by the Post Office.

The subpostmasters were wrongly convicted for fraud and theft when the computer system they use had errors that caused accounting shortfalls that they could not explain. The Post Office did not investigate the cause of the shortfalls, but instead reclaimed the money from subpostmasters and prosecuted hundreds for theft and false accounting. Prison sentences, community service, criminal records and heavy fines were among the injustices they suffered as a result.

The lives of subpostmasters and their families were ruined. They were bankrupted, given criminal records and humiliated, with some suffering physical and mental illness as a result. There is at least one suicide linked to the scandal.

The Post Office will not contest the appeal of former subpostmaster Seema Misra, who was sent to prison while pregnant after being found guilty of theft in 2010 and has spent a decade with a criminal record for a crime she never committed and which never happened. Speaking to Computer Weekly after the news, she said: “I am so happy I’m no longer going to be [wrongly] registered as a criminal.”

Nor will the Post Office contest the appeal of Tracy Felstead, who was prosecuted for theft and false accounting in 2001 and sent to prison for six months. "I’m over the moon it’s very surreal at the moment and I’m very emotional," she told Computer Weekly.

Jo Hamilton, a former subpostmaster in Hampshire, told Computer Weekly she was extremely happy but sad it has taken 12 years to clear her name.

Hamilton was one of the group of subpostmasters Computer Weekly first interviewed in 2009 as part of an investigation. She 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.

“It’s wonderful news for me but I feel guilty for those who were never referred by the CCRC and those who still have a battle ahead,” she said.

In 2009, a Computer Weekly investigation revealed that subpostmasters were being blamed for unexplained financial losses, which they claimed were caused by errors made by the Horizon retail and accounting system. The Post Office denied this, and subpostmasters were prosecuted for theft and false accounting (see timeline below). 

Hundreds of subpostmasters took the Post Office to court in 2018 through a group litigation action to prove that the computer system was to blame for unexplained losses. They won the multimillion-pound High Court battle, which concluded in December 2019, which proved they were right that errors in the Horizon system could cause unexplained accounting shortfalls.

Solicitor Neil Hudgell, who has represented many of the subpostmasters, said this is a landmark moment. “For the Post Office to concede defeat and not oppose these cases is a landmark moment, not only for these individuals, but in time, potentially hundreds of others. The door to justice has been opened,” he said. 

“It is, of course, now a matter for the Post Office as to whether it would seek any retrials, but we have been given no indication of that happening, and is something which would need significant consideration as to the public interest in doing so given the huge public support for those affected.”

More potential cases in Scotland

There could be many more appeals to come after the Scottish CCRC (SCCRC) took what it described as an “unusual step” and wrote to 73 people with criminal convictions potentially linked to Post Office’s Horizon errors.

If the SCCRC concludes potential miscarriages of justice, it will refer them to the Scottish High Court, where appeals are heard.

Commenting on the letters to the individuals who may have been affected by Horizon, a SCCRC spokesperson said: “These are all Post Office-related convictions from the relevant period, but at this stage we don’t know what proportion of them actually relate to the Horizon system.”

It received its first Horizon-related applications this year, after the conclusion of the High Court case in England. “Our colleagues in Birmingham had already built considerable expertise on the subject. They have been kind enough to share that with us,” added the spokesperson.

When announcing the letters being sent, the CEO at the SCCRC, Gerard Sinclair, said: “We are taking the unusual step of contacting a large number of individuals because we want to work out the scale of the problem in Scotland and do whatever we can to address it. Many of those affected by Horizon will have had no prior experience of the criminal justice system. We want anyone who has been wrongly convicted to know that a remedy is available.”

He urged subpostmasters in Scotland who think they might have been affected to contact the SCCRC: “We believe that there may be others affected by Horizon who aren’t on our contact list. The contact details that we have for some people may also be out of date. If you don’t receive a letter, but think that you were wrongly convicted as a result of information from Horizon, I would urge you to make contact with us.”

Review is ‘cynical cop out’, says campaigner

Meanwhile, the review into the Horizon scandal, launched by government after it appointed former High Court judge Wyn Williams as chair, has been slammed by campaigners for justice for subpostmasters. They want nothing less than a judge-led public inquiry with the power to call witnesses, which the current non-statutory review does not allow.

Conservative peer James Arbuthnot, who has campaigned for justice for subpostmasters for many years, said the review announced “is a cynical cop out”.

“It is nothing like the judicial inquiry that we need, the terms of reference have been mildly tweaked. But not in such a way to bring in the key issues of the role of the government and the role of Fujitsu,” said Arbuthnot. 

“It is all very well for the government to say it and Fujitsu will cooperate, but the terms of reference don’t envisage any investigation into their behaviour, which is essential. Without those questions being asked, the review might as well not take place.”

Postal affairs minister Paul Scully said: “The Horizon dispute had a hugely damaging effect on the lives of postmasters and their families, and its repercussions are still being felt today.

“It is essential that we determine precisely what went wrong at the Post Office during this period, so we can ensure the right lessons have been learnt, and establish what must change to make sure this cannot happen again.”

Former subpostmaster and founder of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance campaign group, Alan Bates, who led the litigation against the Post Office, said: “This is a pointless exercise, it’s utterly futile – another whitewash. We certainly will not engage in this inquiry. It’s just an internal review, it’s got nothing to do with redressing what they’ve done in the past.”

Second Sight, the forensic accountancy firm that investigated Horizon for the Post Office, said in June it will not support the government’s announced review of the scandal because of “inadequate terms of reference”.

Ron Warmington, director at Second Sight, said the company is “still deeply concerned that the scope of the review is woefully inadequate”.

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

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