Lucian Milasan -

Post Office will not oppose potential Horizon conviction appellants

Post Office CEO told MPs that the organisation is telling some subpostmasters it won't oppose them if they appeal

The Post Office is contacting subpostmasters that it will not oppose if they come forward to appeal criminal convictions that were based on evidence from its error-prone Horizon computer system, according to its CEO.

Hundreds of former subpostmasters with convictions that could have depended on Horizon evidence have not sought to appeal or responded to contact made by the CCRC and Post Office.

Speaking at a parliamentary Business and Trade department select committee hearing, Post Office CEO Nick Read said he is frustrated by the lack of former subpostmasters, prosecuted using Horizon data, that have come forward to either the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) or directly to the Court of Appeal, to have their convictions reviewed for potential appeal.

During the hearing, investigating bonuses that were wrongly paid to Post Office executives in relation to the Horizon scandal inquiry as well as the progress of compensation payments to victims, Jane Hunt, Conservative member of Parliament for Loughborough, asked Read when compensation for victims of the scandal will be settled.

Read described good progress on some schemes but said there is a troubling lack of people coming forward to appeal convictions and therefore apply to the scheme designed to compensate them. “For the overturned convictions scheme I need more people to come forward, we want to get more people,” he said.

“I am very troubled by the fact that people are not coming forward,” he added. The Post Office is writing to subpostmasters with prosecutions that it has decided it will not contest if appealed,  to encourage them to  make applications. “We have been doing a specific piece of work to identify [whether] there are any potential appellants, individuals that have been prosecuted. We say to them, ‘Come forward, we will not oppose you’,” Read told the committee.

There are about 500 people whose convictions may have involved Horizon evidence and who have not yet sought to appeal, said the Post Office.

He said he understands why people wrongly convicted would not want to relive the trauma they suffered.

Richard Moorhead, professor of law and professional ethics at Exeter University, said the definition of Horizon error used by the Court of Appeal is very narrow and does not take account of the full extent of the wrongdoing by lawyers working in and for the Post Office on prosecutions. "It is vital that Read's offer extends to a broad definition of cases, broader than they have applied to date when deciding which cases to conceded and which to fight," he told Computer Weekly. " The Post Office cannot remain the arbiter of this injustice."

After the introduction of software, known as Horizon, from Fujitsu in 2000 to automate mainly manual practices in Post Office branches, subpostmasters began to see unexplained shortfalls in their accounts. They were subsequently blamed for the shortfalls, which didn’t actually exist, and were made to repay them. A total of 736 were prosecuted for financial crimes based on evidence from the Horizon system, with many serving prison sentences. Thousands more suffered life-changing hardship as a result of failed businesses and repaying unexplained shortfalls.

In 2019, a High Court case proved the software was to blame for unexplained errors. Since then, 86 wrongful convictions have been overturned, but there are hundreds that are yet to come forward to make appeals.

In April, the CCRC called for more potential appellants to come forward and that the “door is [still] open” for reviews of prosecutions of former subpostmasters.

At the time, CCRC chair Helen Pitcher said: “We are committed to raising awareness of the options open to convicted subpostmasters and counter staff. This is the most widespread miscarriage of justice in British history, and we might be able to help many more people challenge a Post Office conviction or clear the name of a loved one who has since died. Advice from us might ultimately lead to that case being overturned, and a miscarriage of justice being corrected.”

In 2009, a Computer Weekly investigation first revealed that subpostmasters were being blamed for unexplained accounting shortfalls, which they believed to be caused by software errors (see timeline of Computer Weekly articles below.) It has become a national scandal involving the government, the Post Office and IT supplier Fujitsu. A statutory public inquiry into the scandal is currently underway.

Out of 700 Post Office prosecutions identified as involving Horizon evidence 131 appeals have been completed. There are currently six appeals going through the courts. 

Read all Computer Weekly articles about the scandal since 2009

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