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Criminal Courts Review Commission appoints forensic accountants for Post Office IT system cases

Investigation into claims of miscarriages of justice in relation to a Post Office accounting system has appointed a forensic accountant firm

The Criminal Courts Review Commission (CCRC) has appointed a firm of forensic accountants to investigate the Horizon IT system at the centre of claims of wrongful prosecution of sub-postmasters.

In April 2015, the CCRC began considering sub-postmasters’ claims of wrongful prosecution for offences such as theft and false accounting, as a result of problems with the Post Office’s Horizon IT system that is used to file accounts. The CCRC is reviewing 27 cases put forward by sub-postmasters who claim they did not get a fair trial.

Two years on from the CCRC’s decision to look into the cases, the appointment of forensic accountants is an important milestone.

In 2009, Computer Weekly revealed the stories of sub-postmasters who had received heavy fines and even jail terms for alleged false accounting, which they blamed on the Horizon operating system and its supporting processes (see timeline below for full story).

The Post Office appointed, and paid for, forensic investigation firm Second Sight to investigate the alleged problems with Horizon raised by sub-postmasters. But after Second Sight’s 96-page report was published in April 2015 saying that the Post Office had been too quick to take legal action against sub-postmasters, the Post Office published an 83-page report of its own claiming that Second Sight’s claims were wrong.

The Second Sight report said: “As a result of our investigations, we have established that the Post Office’s investigators have, in many cases, failed to identify the underlying root cause of shortfalls prior to the initiation of civil recovery action or criminal proceedings. This includes cases where applicants brought to the auditors’ or investigators’ attention their own suspicions as to the underlying root causes of their branches’ losses.”

The Post Office said at the time: “In none of the Post Office’s own work, nor through any of Second Sight’s work, has any information emerged to suggest that a conviction is unsafe. The Post Office as a prosecutor has a continuing duty to disclose immediately any information that subsequently comes to light which might undermine its prosecution case or support the case of the defendant. We have to satisfy both stages of the code for crown prosecutors to start a prosecution – the evidential stage that there is sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction and the public interest stage.”

In an update, the CCRC said: “The Commission continues to actively review a string of cases relating to applications from former [sub-postmasters] convicted of offences such as theft and false accounting, having been prosecuted by the Post Office. We now have 27 such cases where a common theme is that the applicants are saying that issues with the Post Office’s Horizon computer system contributed to their convictions.”

Although each case is different, they are being treated as a group. “Ultimately, each case needs to be considered on its own specific facts but, given the similarities in the issues raised, we are taking a co-ordinated approach to these reviews,” the CCRC added.

Separately, about 1,000 people have applied to take part in a group action brought against the Post Office by sub-postmasters who allege they have been wrongly punished for computer errors. The High Court approved the group litigation order earlier this year. The action was set up by campaign group Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance (JFSA), and the number of sub-postmasters involved is expected to increase from the initial 198.

The Horizon system was implemented by the Post Office in 2000 and has been the subject of complaints by sub-postmasters ever since. Initial concerns were raised when the system was first implemented in 2000, when Alan Bates – who set up JFSA in 2009 – put his concerns in writing to the Post Office. Back in 2009, Computer Weekly spoke to seven sub-postmasters, each of whom was alleged to owe tens of thousands of pounds.

Post Office Horizon: Timeline of events

May 2009 Bankruptcy, prosecution and disrupted livelihoods – postmasters tell their story.

September 2009 Postmasters form action group after accounts shortfall.

November 2009 Post Office theft case deferred over IT questions.

February 2011 Post Office faces legal action over alleged accounting system failures.

October 2011 85 sub-postmasters seek legal support in claims against Post Office computer system.

June 2012 Post Office launches external review of system at centre of legal disputes.

January 2013 Post Office admits Horizon system needs more investigation.

January 2013 Post Office announces amnesty for Horizon evidence.

January 2013 Post Office wants to get to bottom of IT system allegations.

June 2013 Investigation into Post Office accounting system to drill down on strongest cases.

July 2013 Post Office Horizon system investigation reveals concerns.

October 2013 End in sight for sub-postmaster claims against Post Office’s Horizon accounting system.

October 2013 Former Lord Justice of Appeal Hooper joins Post Office Horizon investigation.

November 2013 150 sub-postmasters file claims over “faulty” Horizon accounting system.

September 2014 Fresh questions raised over Post Office IT system’s role in fraud cases.

December 2014 MPs blast Post Office over IT system investigation and remove backing.

December 2014 Why MPs lost faith in the Post Office’s IT investigation, but vowed to fight on.

December 2014 MPs to debate sub-postmaster IT injustice claims.

December 2014 MP accuses Post Office of acting “duplicitously” in IT investigation.

January 2015 MPs force inquiry into Post Office sub-postmaster mediation scheme.

January 2015 Post Office faces grilling by MPs over Horizon accounting system.

February 2015 Post Office CIO would talk to any sub-postmaster about IT problems, promises CEO.

March 2015 Post Office ends working group for IT system investigation day before potentially damaging report.

March 2015 MPs seek reassurance over Post Office mediation scheme.

March 2015 Retiring MP aims to uncover truth of alleged Post Office computer system problems.

April 2015 Post Office failed to investigate account shortfalls before legal action, report claims.

April 2015 Criminal Courts Review Commission set to review sub-postmasters’ claims of wrongful prosecution.

May 2015 IT system related to sub-postmaster prosecutions under review by CCRC.

June 2015 Post Office looking to replace controversial Horizon system with IBM, says MP.

July 2015 Campaigners call for independent inquiry into Post Office Horizon IT system dispute.

October 2015 James Arbuthnot takes Post Office IT fight to House of Lords.

November 2015 The union that represents Post Office sub-postmasters has warned of a problem with the Horizon accounting system.

November 2015 An email from Post Office IT support reveals a problem with the Horizon system and supporting processes that could lead to accounting errors.

November 2015 Group litigation against Post Office being prepared in Horizon dispute.

February 2016 Post Office faces group litigation over Horizon IT as sub-postmasters fund class action.

June 2016 Post Office chairman Tim Parker says there would be “considerable risk” associated with changing its Horizon computer system.

November 2016 The legal team hired by a group of sub-postmasters will take their case to the next stage.

January 2017 The group action against the Post Office that alleges sub-postmasters have been wrongly punished for accounting errors gets a green light from the High Court of Justice.

March 2017 1,000 sub-postmasters apply to join IT-related group litigation against Post Office.

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