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Subpostmasters in Court of Appeal to end 20-year torment

Subpostmasters heading to Court of Appeal to clear their names in what is potentially the biggest miscarriage of justice in English legal history

Subpostmasters convicted of financial crimes based on evidence from a faulty computer system, controlled by a government-owned organisation that refused to listen, will next week appeal to have their names cleared in the Court of Appeal.

On Monday (22 March), 42 subpostmasters, part of the biggest group referral of potential miscarriages of justice in English legal history, begin their appeals to again make history.

The subpostmasters are the victims of what is known as the Post Office Horizon scandal, which saw more than 900 people convicted of crimes based on flawed computer evidence. During a 15-year period from 2000, the Post Office used its private prosecution powers to convict subpostmasters for crimes including theft and false accounting, because unexplained accounting shortfalls appeared on the Horizon accounting and retail system used in thousands of branches.

Clearing the names of subpostmasters will not be the end of the story, but would be the next landmark in what is described by peer James Arbuthnot as an “iniquitous story of the abuse of power”.

The Horizon system, from IT supplier Fujitsu, was introduced in 1999, when it replaced largely manual accounting practices. Unexplained losses began to appear at Post Office branches and subpostmasters running the branches were blamed. Private prosecutions meant shortfalls were not properly investigated by the Post Office and there was no police involvement before trials.

Some subpostmasters were sent to prison and others were forced to plead guilty to avoid jail, with hundreds living their lives with the burden of a criminal record.

Many more, who were not prosecuted, were forced to repay accounting shortfalls under threat of criminal proceedings, spending their life savings and selling properties to cover these unexplained shortfalls.

Subpostmaster interviews

Computer Weekly investigation in 2009 first revealed the plight of the subpostmasters, in interviews with seven of the affected (see timeline below for more).

In the Court of Appeal next week, 42 people, pillars of their communities before being branded criminals, hope to clear their names.

Some of the subpostmasters originally interviewed by Computer Weekly are part of the group of appellants.

Jo Hamilton, who was interviewed by Computer Weekly in 2009, was subpostmaster in South Warnborough in Hampshire between 2003 and 2005. She had a grocery store with a Post Office attached. In October 2003 she started experiencing problems with mysterious losses. 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.

Hamilton said the case did not deal with the issue of IT. She pleaded guilty and was given a year’s probation. Her house was remortgaged to pay the money, and the villagers in South Warnborough collected £9,000 between them to help.

The Court of Appeal will also hear the case of Noel Thomas, who spent his 60th birthday in prison while serving a 12-week sentence after being prosecuted for false accounting. In 2009, he told Computer Weekly: “It was hell on Earth and it took me a long time to get over it.”

Making history

The appellants have already created history. In March last year, when an original group of 39 subpostmaster cases were referred to appeal by the Criminal Case Review Commission, Helen Pitcher, chairman at the CCRC, said it was the biggest group referral in UK history. The number has since risen to around 50.

Six, who were originally convicted in a magistrates court, have already had successful appeals at Southwark Crown Court. Subpostmasters Vipinchandra Patel, Julie Cleife, Susan Rudkin, Kamran Ashraf, Jasvindr Barang and Christopher Trousdale all had their criminal records and convictions quashed.

The CCRC has been reviewing subpostmaster cases since 2015 but it was after a High Court case that concluded at the end of 2019, where over 500 affected subpostmasters successfully sued the Post Office, that the CCRC referred the cases.

In his Judgements in the Bates and others versus Post Office group litigation in the High Court, judge Peter Fraser found that the Horizon system, contrary to Post Office claims, was not robust and was prone to errors that could cause unexplained losses.

He also said that the Post Office engaged in “oppressive behaviour” when demanding sums of money that could not be accounted for by subpostmasters.

The action was led by Alan Bates, another of the first seven subpostmasters that told their stories to Computer Weekly in 2009. He was sacked by the Post Office because he refused to make up unexplained shortfalls that began appearing after the introduction of the Horizon system. He lost his Post Office in north Wales, for which he had paid more than £60,000 in 1998.

Miscarriage of justice

Bates was never prosecuted so is not an appellant at the Court of Appeal. He told Computer Weekly: “I have no doubt the Court of Appeal will confirm what will prove to be the biggest miscarriage of justice in English legal history.”

He said the landmark event should alert more of the public to the injustice these subpostmasters and many more have suffered and are suffering to this day. “It should highlight the central role the government played in this scandal and build public pressure for real justice for subpostmasters with a full statutory public inquiry.”

A non-statutory review was set up by the government, led by retired judge Wyn Williams, which does not have the power to call witnesses under oath. According to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the inquiry was designed “to ensure that lessons are learned, and that concrete changes take place at the Post Office”.

Bates criticised the current government inquiry into the scandal. “The current government inquiry has been designed to be a whitewash which will totally fail to reveal its full extent and those who were responsible.”

Another of the original group of subpostmasters  interviewed by Computer Weekly was Lee Castleton. He is not a Court of Appeal appellant, but was declared bankrupt after he refused to pay the Post Office £27,000 – money they said he owed because the accounts of his Post Office branch in Bridlington, Yorkshire, showed unexplained deficits over a 12-week period in 2004.

Castleton would not pay it back, and decided to go to court to contest the Post Office’s insistence that he should pay. But the court ruled that the debt was real, not illusory as Castleton argued. “The losses must have been caused by his own error or that of his assistants,” the judgment said.

Bankruptcy

Having lost the case, Castleton was left with costs of £321,000. In 2007, he filed for bankruptcy.

On the eve of the Court of Appeal hearings, he told Computer Weekly of the importance of next week’s cases. “They highlight the fact that Post Office were prepared to mislead a court to get a conviction. They also show how devastating the power to prosecute can be to a normal person when in the hands of an unchecked unaccountable government owned bottomless pit funded company that is mismanaged to the point of breaking the law.”

“Never forget the tens of millions of pounds taken from innocent people to pay back false shortages in accounts that now lay in the bank accounts of the Post Office and the government,” he added.

There is a great deal of unfinished business for victims and those that have supported them, such as Conservative peer Arbuthnot.

“After so many years of hell, the subpostmasters truly deserve a better response from the government, the Post Office and Fujitsu than they have so far received,” he said. Arbuthnot became involved with campaigning after being contacted by Jo Hamilton when he was her MP in North East Hampshire.

“These good people did nothing wrong,” he said. “Quite the contrary, they were the glue that held their local communities together, that looked after the vulnerable people in the village, that helped out when anyone needed help.”

Accounting system

Arbuthnot said when a computer accounting system “was imposed on them” they did their best to make it work.

“But it didn’t work, and the reaction of those in authority was to accuse the subpostmasters of false accounting, theft and fraud even though they knew that it was the system itself that was faulty. The authorities dragged the subpostmasters through the courts, punishing and humiliating them for crimes of which they were not guilty,” he said.

“And when in the end the subpostmasters were forced to take these authorities to litigation, the authorities ran up costs to so high a figure that the subpostmasters had to settle without receiving any compensation for the wrongs they had suffered.

“It is good that the story has not yet finished in so unhappy a state, but it is shocking that it has taken so long and that even now the government, the Post Office and Fujitsu are holding out against doing the right thing themselves – which is to pay full compensation for all the damage the subpostmasters and their staff have suffered,” added Arbuthnot.

As well as shining more light on the injustices suffered by subpostmasters at the hands of the Post Office, the appeals, if successful, it could also shine a light on UK legal rules and question the current presumption in court that computer evidence is right.

During the trial of Lee Castleton, the judge said: “It is inescapable that the Horizon system was working properly in all material respects.” But the High Court case proved this wrong, and as Fraser said, the Post Office’s denial of anything contradicting what Horizon said “was today’s equivalent of maintaining that the Earth is flat”.

Horizon misrepresentation

Paul Marshall, barrister at Cornerstone Barristers and expert on the Horizon cases, said: “It is astonishing that, in the vast majority of cases prosecuted by the Post Office, the fact that the Horizon computer system, upon which the evidence against defendants crucially depended, was almost laughably unreliable and bug-ridden – yet successfully presented to courts by the Post Office as being both reliable and robust.”

He said there was typically no evidence that defendants had received any money or benefit and prosecutions all turned on evidence of shortfalls in computerised accounts. “That the courts routinely accepted the Post Office’s evidence suggests the courts routinely failed in their purpose to effectively test and weigh the evidence. The courts plainly did not effectively test the evidence because the relevant evidence of widespread failure of the Horizon system was not before the court.”

Marshall was invited by Alex Chalk, minister at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), to submit a paper to the MoJ on suggestions for improving the existing approach to the proof in court proceedings of computer-derived evidence. The paper was submitted to the MoJ in November 2020 and has now been published.

The paper recommends that when electronic evidence is used in legal proceedings, the party relying on the electronic evidence should automatically provide sufficient details of their systems to demonstrate that they are professionally managed.

Chalk has referred the paper and its recommendations to the Criminal Procedure Rule Committee chair.

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

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