Dozens of Post Office staff who were convicted of stealing money because of a faulty computer system will find out today if their names have finally been cleared after Horizon IT scandal
- Subpostmasters to learn if convictions for financial crimes will be quashed
- Post Office sacked or prosecuted 736 subpostmasters between 1999 and 2015
- Money appeared to go missing from branch accounts but IT system is blamed
- Some 42 subpostmasters have since been battling to clear their names
Dozens of Post Office staff who claim they were victims of a widespread miscarriage of justice after they were prosecuted for stealing money because of a defective IT system will find out today if their names have been cleared.
A group of 42 former subpostmasters and postmistresses were convicted of theft, fraud and false accounting because of flaws in the Fujitsu-developed Horizon computer system which was installed in branches.
Between 1999 and 2015, the Post Office sacked or prosecuted 736 subpostmasters after money appeared to go missing from their branch accounts.
Post Office bosses concealed evidence of flaws in the IT terminals which were to blame to protect the organisation ‘at all costs’, instead bullying postmasters into pleading guilty to crimes they knew they had not committed.
Many others who were not convicted were hounded out of their jobs or forced to pay back thousands of pounds of ‘missing’ money. The Post Office spent £32million to deny any fault in their IT system, before capitulating.
Subpostmasters lost their jobs, homes and marriages, and even imprisoned. Some have since died, ‘having gone to their graves’ with convictions against their name, the Court of Appeal was told. One postmaster, Martin Griffiths, 59, took his own life after he was falsely suspected of taking £60,000.
The Post Office has already paid a £58million settlement to 557 postmasters following an acrimonious High Court battle, but now faces a further 2,400 claims under a new compensation scheme.
At a hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice in London today, at least 39 of the former subpostmasters are expected to have their convictions overturned.
Former subpostmasters Janet Skinner, Seema Misra and Tracy Felstead outside the Royal Courts of Justice, London, on March 23, 2021
Between 1999 and 2015, hundreds of postmasters were sacked or prosecuted after money appeared to go missing from their branch accounts (file image)
What was the Horizon computer system? And what effect did it have?
Horizon, an IT system developed by the Japanese company Fujitsu, was rolled out by the Post Office from 1999.
The system was used for tasks such as transactions, accounting and stocktaking. However, subpostmasters complained about defects after it reported shortfalls – some of which amounted to thousands of pounds.
Some subpostmasters attempted to plug the gap with their own money, even remortgaging their homes, in an attempt to correct an error.
Between 1999 and 2015, hundreds of subpostmasters were sacked or prosecuted due to the glitches. The ex-workers blamed flaws in the IT system, Horizon, but the Post Office denied there was a problem.
In case after case the Post Office bullied postmasters into pleading guilty to crimes they knew they had not committed.
Many others who were not convicted were hounded out of their jobs or forced to pay back thousands of pounds of ‘missing’ money.
The Post Office spent £32million to deny any fault in their IT system, before capitulating.
However, the postmasters and postmistresses said the scandal ruined their lives as they had to cope with the impact of a conviction and imprisonment, some while they had been pregnant or had young children.
Marriages broke down, and courts have heard how some families believe the stress led to health conditions, addiction and premature deaths.
The Post Office has conceded that 39 of the 42 appellants’ appeals should be allowed, on the basis that ‘they did not or could not have a fair trial’.
But it has opposed 35 of those 39 cases on a second ground of appeal, which is that the prosecutions were ‘an affront to justice’.
Four of the 42 appeals are not opposed on either ground, while three are fully opposed by the Post Office, which has previously said it will not seek retrials of any of the appellants if their convictions are overturned.
Lord Justice Holroyde, Mr Justice Picken and Mrs Justice Farbey are expected to give a ruling formally quashing the 39 former subpostmasters’ convictions on the basis that they did not have a fair trial on Friday morning.
The Court of Appeal will also rule on whether 35 of them have won their appeals on the grounds that their prosecutions were an affront to justice, as well as on the three fully-contested appeals.
At the hearing in March, Sam Stein QC – representing five of the former subpostmasters – said the Post Office’s failure to investigate and disclose serious problems with Horizon was ‘the longest and most extensive affront to the justice system in living memory’.
He said the Post Office ‘has turned itself into the nation’s most untrustworthy brand’ by attempting to ‘protect’ Horizon from concerns about its reliability.
He also argued that the Post Office’s ‘lack of disclosure within criminal cases perverted the legal process’, with many defendants pleading guilty ‘without exculpatory facts being known or explored’.
Mr Stein told the court: ‘The fall from grace by the Post Office cannot be ignored.
‘It has gone from valued friend to devalued villain.
‘Those responsible within the Post Office had the duty to maintain not only the high standards of those responsible for any prosecution, but also to maintain the high faith and trust we had for the Post Office.
‘Instead, the Post Office failed in its simplest of duties – to act honestly and reliably.’
Tim Moloney QC, representing the majority of the former subpostmasters, said the Post Office’s failure to investigate the reliability of Horizon was ‘shameful and culpable’.
He added: ‘Those failures are rendered all the more egregious … by the inability of the defendants to make their own investigations of the reasons for the apparent discrepancies.’
Mr Moloney told the court there was ‘an institutional imperative of acquitting Horizon and convicted subpostmasters… in order to protect Horizon and to protect their own commercial reputation’.
The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) referred the cases of 42 former subpostmasters to the Court of Appeal last year, following a landmark High Court case against the Post Office.
The Post Office ultimately settled the civil claim brought by more than 550 claimants for £57.75million, without admitting liability, in December 2019.
Mr Justice Fraser found Horizon contained ‘bugs, errors and defects’ and that there was a ‘material risk’ shortfalls in branch accounts were caused by the system.
As a result of the High Court’s findings, the CCRC referred the 42 former subpostmasters’ convictions to the Court of Appeal.
In a statement ahead of today’s ruling, a Post Office spokeswoman said: ‘We sincerely apologise to the postmasters affected by our historical failures.
‘Throughout this appeals process we have supported the quashing of the overwhelming majority of these convictions and the judgment tomorrow will be an important milestone in addressing the past.’
The Court of Appeal hearing is due to begin at 10.30am today, but it is not yet known when the former subpostmasters’ convictions will be formally quashed.
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