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Subpostmasters stealing from branches ‘didn’t make sense,’ former judge tells inquiry

The former judge who chaired a scheme set up by the Post Office to settle claims against its Horizon system said he told bosses their prosecutions of subpostmasters "didn't make sense"

The Post Office's criminal cases against subpostmasters “did not make sense” and were “fundamentally implausible,” a former judge told the organisation's bosses.

Appearing today at the Post Office inquiry, Anthony Hooper, a former Lord Justice of Appeal, said it was clear from the start that criminal prosecutions against subpostmasters were “fundamentally implausible.” He said he told Post Office CEO Paula Vennells and chair Alice Perkins this during one-on-one discussions in 2014.

In June 2012, an independent scheme was set up by the Post Office, following pressure from MPs and campaigners, whereby forensic accountants Second Sight were appointed to investigate subpostmaster claims that the Horizon IT system was at fault, and to pass their findings through to mediation. Hooper was appointed to chair the mediation scheme, in October 2013.

Questioned about his experiences of dealing with the Post Office, Hooper said: “I was trying to make it clear to Paula Vennells and the chairman of the Post Office that their case didn’t make sense. I felt that throughout, as did Second Sight. It did not make sense that reputable subpostmasters, appointed by the Post Office after examination of their character, would be stealing these sums of money. It didn’t make sense particularly because within a matter of days of any alleged theft, they had to balance the books. It just never made sense.”

He also refuted Post Office claims that Second Sight had not come across as independent: “They were completely independent, they were just coming to conclusions that the Post Office didn’t like.”

During Hooper’s evidence it also emerged that the Post Office only anticipated compensation to subpostmasters involved in the mediation scheme to be about £5m in total, but Second Sight warned at the time that it could cost up to £50m. A note from a meeting between Hooper, Vennells and Post Office general counsel Chris Aujard, recorded that Vennells said: "The scheme had therefore moved a long way from its initial positioning as something the outcome of which in many cases might be an apology and/or small gratuitous payment.”

Since 2014, when the meeting took place, the costs of the Post Office scandal are now estimated to be in excess of £1.2bn.

Closing his evidence, Hooper said: “It is the greatest scandal that I have ever seen in the criminal justice process. We have had many miscarriages of justice, but nowhere near as many as this. We need to re-evaluate how we approach criminal cases of this type. This time something went very, very, wrong.”

Also appearing at the inquiry was peer James Arbuthnot. His evidence revealed lies and deceit from the Post Office’s most senior executives that allowed them to hide Horizon problems from MPs.

The inquiry heard how Post Office chiefs hid knowledge of known software bugs and failed prosecutions from a group of MPs campaigning on behalf of subpostmasters who were their constituents. These details would have undermined the Post Office’s continuous claims that the Horizon system was “robust” with no errors that could cause unexplained shortfalls.

Arbuthnot, then MP for the north-east Hampshire constituency where wrongly prosecuted subpostmaster Jo Hamilton had her branch, revealed the extent to which he and eight other MPs were misled by Post Office CEO Vennells, chair Perkins, network director Angela van den Bogerd and company secretary Alwyn Lyons.

Documents presented to the inquiry showed that during a meeting with MPs, the Post Office executives claimed the Horizon system was fully audited and robust. They also told MPs that all challenges to Horizon, including those in a law court, had ended in the Post Office’s favour. Those statements were not true as there were three cases where juries had acquitted subpostmasters and the Post Office also knew of several software errors, including the Calendar Square and Dalmellington bugs.

Jason Beer, KC to the inquiry, listed 16 facts known to the Post Office, including Horizon errors and lost court cases against subpostmasters, which Arbuthnot said he had never been told about.

In closing his evidence Arbuthnot said: “I think with the help of this inquiry we are moving belatedly to the right place.”

The Post Office scandal was first exposed by Computer Weekly in 2009, revealing the stories of seven subpostmasters and the problems they suffered due to the accounting software (see timeline of Computer Weekly articles about the scandal below).

Also read: What you need to know about the Horizon scandal 

Also watch: ITV’s documentary – Mr Bates vs The Post Office: The real story 

Read all Computer Weekly articles about the scandal since 2009

Read more on IT for government and public sector

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