The Court of Appeal has overturned the criminal convictions of 39 subpostmasters who were blamed and punished for accounting shortfalls caused by computer errors.
After spending many years with criminal records for crimes they did not commit, the subpostmasters won their long fight for justice.
Over an almost 15-year period, some subpostmasters were sent to prison, many were heavily fined, large numbers were made bankrupt and families were ruined. It is often described as the biggest miscarriage of justice in English legal history and is linked to at least one suicide.
The Court of Appeal ruling takes the total number of subpostmaster convictions overturned so far to 45. Six, who were originally convicted in a magistrates’ court, had successful appeals at Southwark Crown Court in December 2020.
Lord Justice Holroyde said the Post Office had failed to investigate the shortfalls and disclose information that could undermine the robustness of Horizon, during the trials of subpostmasters. Three appeals were dismissed.
The court concluded that the Post Office’s “failures of investigation and disclosure were so egregious as to make the prosecution of any of the ‘Horizon cases’ an affront to the conscience of the court.”
In a devastating ruling for the Post Office, the judges said: “By representing Horizon as reliable, and refusing to countenance any suggestion to the contrary, POL [Post Office Limited] effectively sought to reverse the burden of proof: it treated what was no more than a shortfall shown by an unreliable accounting system as an incontrovertible loss, and proceeded as if it were for the accused to prove that no such loss had occurred.”
The court had previously heard evidence that the Post Office knew the Horizon IT system was flawed, but continued to prosecute subpostmasters regardless.
“We conclude that POL knew there were serious issues about the reliability of Horizon. It had a clear duty to investigate all reasonable lines of enquiry, to consider disclosure and to make disclosure to the appellants of anything which might reasonably be considered to undermine its case. Yet it does not appear that POL adequately considered or made relevant disclosure of problems with or concerns about Horizon in any of the cases at any point during that period,” said the ruling.
“On the contrary, it consistently asserted that Horizon was robust and reliable. Nor does it appear that any attempt was made to investigate the assertions of SPMs [subpostmasters] that there must be a problem with Horizon. The consistent failure of POL to be open and honest about the issues affecting Horizon can in our view only be explained by a strong reluctance to say or do anything which might lead to other SPMs knowing about those issues. Those concerned with prosecutions of SPMs clearly wished to be able to maintain the assertion that Horizon data was accurate, and effectively steamrolled over any SPM who sought to challenge its accuracy.”
The Court of Appeal’s decision follows 42 subpostmaster appeals heard last month. Most (39) were not opposed on at least one ground, predominantly that they did not receive a fair trial, known as “limb 1”.
In its referral of appeals, the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), which referred the cases, said the convictions were potentially unsafe for two reasons. The first was that the computer evidence used in prosecutions was potentially unreliable (limb 1). The CCRC’s second reason for referring cases was that the Post Office knew it was not possible for subpostmasters to have a fair trial but proceeded anyway, which was an “affront to the public conscience” (limb 2). The 39 subpostmaster convictions were overturned on both grounds.
“Defendants were prosecuted, convicted and sentenced on the basis that the Horizon data must be correct, and cash must therefore be missing, when in fact there could be no confidence as to that foundation,” ruled the court.
Former subpostmaster Seema Misra, who in 2010 was convicted for theft and sent to prison while pregnant, had her criminal conviction overturned. Following the Court of Appeal judgment, she said: “In October 2010, I arrived in court expecting justice to prevail, but the Post Office had other ideas. They were not concerned about my innocence but rather in protecting the reputation of their computer system, Horizon, whose reliability I had questioned in my defence.”
Computer Weekly first revealed the scandal in 2009, with the stories of seven subpostmasters (see timeline of Computer Weekly articles since 2009).
Two of the subpostmasters interviewed by Computer Weekly in 2009 are among those appellants who have had convictions overturned.
Jo Hamilton was subpostmaster in South Warnborough in Hampshire between 2003 and 2005. In October 2003, she started experiencing problems with mysterious losses and was unable to explain them. Hamilton was faced with the prospect of a prison sentence, and to avoid it she pleaded guilty to false accounting, despite having done nothing wrong.
In 2009, she told Computer Weekly the case did not deal with the issue of IT. Hamilton pleaded guilty and was given a year’s probation. Her house was remortgaged to pay the money, and the villagers in South Warnborough collected £9,000 between them to help.
After the judgement she said: “I can’t believe it has taken so long to reach this day. I am an optimist and I did believe it would come. To hear my name read out in court was a life-changing moment. All I want is a week off. Ever since I came under investigation I have had to work as a cleaner and I can never take any time off. I will go to work tomorrow with my head held high. I’m so grateful for the support I have received, from the people in my community to Hudgell Solicitors, everyone who has helped us reach this point. The fight goes on and we will never give up seeking justice for all.”
The Court of Appeal also quashed the conviction of Hughie “Noel” Thomas, who spent his 60th birthday in prison while serving a 12-week sentence after being prosecuted for false accounting. In 2009, he told Computer Weekly it was “hell on Earth” and that it had taken him a “long time to get over it”.
Mr Thomas, of Anglesey, said: “At last, justice. It has been a long time – 16 years. Having worked for an institution, a royal one, for 42 years, having been treated along with others very badly, and suffered denials and lies for years, it is not compensation I am after, but my good name and the money I lost and worked for all my life. At last there is hope and light at the end of the tunnel for all involved. My biggest wish would be to meet the people behind the decision-making face to face, and ask them why they ruined so many families’ lives. The question would be, ‘Why?’”
Mr Thomas and Ms Hamiltion werev re[resented by Hudgell Solicitors. Neil Hudgell, solicitor and executive chairman at Hudgell Solicitor, which represented 33 of the appellants said true justice can only happen if Post Office officials now face a full criminal investigation themselves.
He said: “It is almost impossible to describe the true impact that this scandal has had on the lives of this group of people who had their reputations and livelihoods so unfairly destroyed.
“They are honest, hard-working people who served their communities but have had to live with the stigma of being branded criminals for many years, all the while knowing they have been innocent. It has been an honour to stand by their side and reach this point today.”
Separated from children
Tracy Feldsted and Janet Skinner, who were imprisoned after being convicted, also had their convictions overturned. Ms Feldsted was 19 when she was imprisoned and Ms Skinner was separated from her two children.
Nick Gould, solicitor partner at Aria Grace Law, which represented Feldstad, Skinner and Misra, said he was “absolutely delighted” for his three clients, but added that it had been “far too long to wait”.
After the first Computer Weekly article was published in 2009, subpostmasters who had experienced unexplained losses but had been told by the Post Office they were the only cases realised the Post Office had misled them. They came together and Alan Bates, who lost his post office after being blamed for accounting shortfalls, formed the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) campaign group.
For nearly 20 years, the Post Office strenuously denied the Horizon retail and accounting system, from Fujitsu, could be causing the account shortfalls and prosecuted the subpostmasters based on evidence from the system. It was only after a damning High Court judgment in 2019 that the Post Office conceded the computer system was to blame.
The JFSA campaigned from 2009, and in 2018 took the Post Office to the High Court in the Bates and others versus Post Office group litigation.
Post Office denial
In his 2019 judgments, High Court judge Peter Fraser found that the Horizon system, contrary to Post Office claims, was not robust and was prone to errors that could cause unexplained losses. He described the Post Office’s denial that Horizon could be to blame as “the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the Earth is flat”.
He also said the Post Office had engaged in “oppressive behaviour” when demanding sums of money that could not be accounted for by subpostmasters. The Post Office conceded, apologised, agreed to pay £57.75m damages and promised to change its ways.
Bates said of the convictions being overturned: “It is really great news for the 39, a true travesty of justice that should never have been allowed to happen, but happened because the government failed to manage the Post Office, which it had a statutory duty to.”
Responding to the Court of Appeal ruling, Post Office chief executive Nick Read said: “I am in no doubt about the human cost of the Post Office’s past failures and the deep pain that has been caused to people affected. Many of those postmasters involved have been fighting for justice for a considerable length of time and sadly there are some who are not here to see the outcome today and whose families have taken forward appeals in their memory. I am very moved by their courage.”
He added: “The quashing of historical convictions is a vital milestone in fully and properly addressing the past as I work to put right these wrongs as swiftly as possible and there must be compensation that reflects what has happened.”
The CCRC began reviewing subpostmaster claims of wrongful prosecution in 2015, and soon after, the High Court judgment referred them for appeal, in the biggest group referral of potential miscarriages of justice in history.
There could be many more appeals. Between 2000 and 2015, the Post Office, through its power to prosecute privately, led to the conviction of 736 subpostmasters. The CCRC said it is currently reviewing another 22 cases. Meanwhile, the Scottish CCRC is currently reviewing five cases.
CCRC chairman Helen Pitcher said of the ruling: “This has been a serious miscarriage of justice which has had a devastating impact on these victims and their families. Every single one of these convictions has clearly had a profound and life-changing impact for those involved. The Post Office has rightly acknowledged the failures that led to these cases and conceded that the prosecutions were an abuse of process. We sincerely hope that lessons will be learned from this to prevent anything similar happening elsewhere in the future.”
Tim McCormack, a former subpostmaster who has campaigned for justice for affected subpostmasters, said: “Today’s quashing of so many convictions is truly a bittersweet moment for me. I am delighted for all but saddened by the fact that several are no longer with us. I’ll drink a toast to the memory of Julian Wilson tonight.”
Julian Wilson died before seeing his conviction overturned. His wife Karen carried on his fight for justice.
“This is not the end of the road,” added McCormack. “There are so many unanswered questions.”
Post Office chairman Tim Parker said the Post Office was extremely sorry for the impact on the lives of these postmasters and their families caused by historical failures.
“We are contacting other postmasters and Post Office workers with criminal convictions from past private Post Office prosecutions who may be affected, to assist them to appeal should they wish,” he said.
“The Post Office continues to reform its operations and culture to ensure such events can never happen again. The full ruling by the Court of Appeal judges published today is detailed, therefore Post Office will assess the judgment carefully to understand what further action may be required,” said Parker.