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‘It's a good day when we refer a case,’ CCRC tells MPs during review of Post Office prosecutions

Criminal Cases Review Commission will not allow pressure on its resources to prevent subpostmasters seeking a review of their criminal convictions

The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) has said its resources will be strained if large numbers of former subpostmasters appeal their criminal convictions at once, but it will do everything necessary to help overturn wrongful convictions.

During a Justice Committee hearing, MPs quizzed the CCRC on the Post Office’s prosecution of 736 subpostmasters for financial crimes, based on flawed computer evidence.

The CCRC has already played a central role in quashing 47 wrongful convictions of former subpostmasters, but Miles Trent, case review manager at the Commission, told MPs: “We are not at the end of the story and there is still a lot more work to do.”

Stressing the CCRC’s passion for identifying miscarriages of justice, Trent said: “It’s a good day when we refer a case.”

And there have been some good days this year. It has seen the highest number of potential injustices referred for appeal by the CCRC in a single year, with 70 in the 12 months from 31 March 2020.

Former subpostmasters and Post Office workers prosecuted by the Post Office made up 51 of these and 47 of them have had their convictions overturned.

The CCRC has 22 more subpostmaster cases under review and that number is expected to increase by hundreds after the Post Office wrote to 540 former subpostmasters telling them they had been prosecuted based on evidence from the Horizon system.

The subpostmasters were prosecuted for financial crimes based on evidence from the Post Office’s retail and accounting system, known as Horizon, which has since been proved to have had bugs that could cause unexplained shortfalls.

Over a period of almost 15 years, some subpostmasters were sent to prison, many were heavily fined, large numbers were made bankrupt and families were ruined. Many suffered ill health as a result of stress and depression, with at least one suicide linked to the Post Office scandal.

Computer Weekly first revealed the scandal in 2009 with the stories of seven subpostmasters (see timeline below of Computer Weekly articles since 2009).

During the Justice Committee hearing, Trent said: “We are very keen to make sure that anyone that needs our help on this issue, finds their way to us.”

Since the Court of Appeal and Southwark Crown Court overturned convictions, it is now possible for some people prosecuted by the Post Office to go directly to the Court of Appeal, as 38 former subpostmasters have.

Referring to the subpostmasters the Post Office has contacted, Trent said: “A lot of these people would not have appealed before, so it is important for us to signpost them to the Court of Appeal.”

He added that subpostmasters who pleaded guilty in magistrates courts, of which there are about 200, must go to the CCRC for support because there is no automatic right to appeal for them. “We want to find these cases and if they want to challenge their conviction, they can do so through us,” he said.

Trent said the miscarriage of justice seen in the Horizon scandal was the most widespread example and had affected courts across the country. “In those terms, it is out there on its own,” he added.

Asked whether the CCRC was adequately resourced to take on potentially hundreds of new cases in one go, CCRC chairman Helen Pitcher told MPs that the statutory body was not, which she said “is a cause for concern”.

“If we get the numbers we anticipate all at once, that will be a resourcing problem for us,” she said.

But the CCRC said this would not stop it helping those who were potentially wrongfully convicted to appeal.

Paul Marshall, a barrister at Cornerstone Barristers, who worked on the appeals of three former subpostmasters who saw their convictions quashed in the Court of Appeal, said that over the past 10 years, public spending on justice had been cut by more than 24% in real terms. 

“It is perfectly obvious that the government with its fickle faddishness is not at all interested in funding justice,” he said.

“The CCRC’s repeatedly cut budget contributed to denying the convicted subpostmasters their right to a hearing of an appeal within a reasonable time – a right that is guaranteed by the state under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Injustice upon injustice – but who cares?”

Post Office Horizon scandal articles since Computer Weekly first reported on it in 2009

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