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Post Office staff instructed to shred documents that undermined its claims Horizon was robust

Barrister advising the Post Office in 2013 stated that destroying documents would "amount to a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice"

Court of Appeal hearing reveals Post Office instructed employees to destroy documents that undermined an insistence that its Horizon computer system was robust, amid claims that errors in the system caused unexplained accounting shortfalls.

It was also revealed that the Post Office was told that if these instructions were carried out it would “amount to a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.”

The losses reported by the system led to hundreds of subpostmaster prosecutions for financial crimes, with some serving prison sentences.

During a hearing in the Court of Appeal, QCs representing former subpostmasters appealing to have wrongful prosecutions quashed, referred to advice given to the Post Office in 2013 by Simon Clarke, a barrister advising the Post Office at the time.

In a note to the Post Office, written in 2013, referring to a conference set up to act as “the primary repository for all Horizon-related issues,” Clarke wrote: “The minutes of a previous conference call had been typed and emailed to a number of persons. An instruction was then given that those emails and minutes should be, and have been, destroyed: the word ‘shredded’ was conveyed to me.”

He also wrote that instruction was given that handwritten minutes were not to be typed and should be forwarded to the Post Office head of security. “Advice had been given to [Post Office] which I report as relayed to me verbatim: ‘If it’s not minuted it’s not in the public domain and therefore not disclosable’,” he wrote,

“Such a decision, where it is taken partly or wholly in order to avoid future disclosure obligations, may well amount to a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice on the part of those both taking such a decision, and those who implement such a decision where they do so in the knowledge that it was taken partly or wholly for that purpose,” Clarke added.

At the Court of Appeal this week 42 former subpostmasters are appealing to have their names cleared. They are victims of the Post Office Horizon IT scandal which saw subpostmasters sent to prison while many others had their lives wrecked after being prosecuted for financial crimes, based on evidence from the Horizon system they used in branches.

The Post Office said in a statement: “Post Office is not opposing the majority of these appeals and informed the Court and appellants of this at the earliest opportunity, in October 2020. We sincerely apologise for historical failings and have taken determined action to address the past, ensure redress for those affected and prevent such events ever happening again. It would be inappropriate to comment further whilst there are continuing hearings at the Court of Appeal.”

A Computer Weekly investigation in 2009 revealed that subpostmasters were being blamed for unexplained financial losses, which they suspected were caused by errors made by the Horizon system. The Post Office denied this was possible, and many subpostmasters were subsequently prosecuted for theft and false accounting, with prison sentences, community service, criminal records and heavy fines among the injustices they suffered as a result. It has become one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in UK history (see timeline below).

A High Court case that concluded at the end of 2019 saw 555 affected subpostmasters successfully sue the Post Office and since their judgements the Criminal Cases Review Commission has referred about 50 subpostmasters' cases of potential miscarriages of justice for appeal.

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.

During the Court of Appeal hearing the Post Office, through its protection of the Horizon system, was described by a QC representing appellants as, "an affront to the justice system of England and Wales”.

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

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