Post Office scandal: 39 former postmasters convicted of stealing money have names cleared

Vindicated former postmasters shed tears of joy and opened bottles of champagne outside the Royal Courts of Justice today as 39 men and women had their convictions for stealing money from the Post Office quashed after hundreds were bankrupted, sacked or jailed in one of Britain’s biggest miscarriages of justice.

Hundreds of innocent Post Office staff were blamed for losses in branch accounts caused by serious flaws in the Fujitsu-developed Horizon computer system which was in use between 1999 and 2015.

Rather than admit the IT system was defective, the Post Office concealed evidence of the glitches and instead forced its own staff to plead guilty to crimes they knew they had not committed, lawyers representing the 42 who sought to get their convictions overturned by the Court of Appeal said.

Many postmasters and postmistresses were prosecuted for theft, fraud and false accounting, while others were hounded out of work or forced to pay huge sums of ‘missing’ money. The scandal blighted their lives, as former staff lost their homes and marriages, and suffered ill health as a result.  

One former postmaster, Martin Griffiths, killed himself after he was falsely suspected of stealing £60,000, while some have since died and ‘gone to their graves’ with convictions against their names.  

In a landmark ruling at the Court of Appeal today, Lord Justice Holroyde said the Post Office ‘knew there were serious issues about the reliability of Horizon’ but ‘consistently asserted [it] was robust and reliable’, and ‘effectively steamrolled over any subpostmaster who sought to challenge its accuracy’. 

Outside the courts, former postmasters and postmistresses and their friends and families celebrated the historic event. Noel Thomas, who spent nearly a year in jail in 2006 after being accused of stealing from the Post Office in Gaerwen on Anglesey, burst into tears as he was embraced by his daughter Sian. 

‘It has been a long, long time. It’s a big weight off everyone’s shoulders really,’ he said.

Tom Hedges, who was convicted of theft and false accounting and given a seven-month suspended sentence in 2011, opened a bottle of prosecco and bellowed: ‘It’s a wonderful afternoon. When I told my mother, who’s 93, I was coming to court she said ‘get yourself down to Aldi and get some prosecco’. She said: ‘Just remember your name is Hedges not Rothschild, so get prosecco, not Bollinger!” 

Tracy Felstead, who was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment in a young offender institution in 2002, when she was just 19, cried when she heard that her conviction was being overturned.

Ms Felstead, 38, said she was ‘over the moon’ by the ruling but remains ‘angry that it even got this far and they have been allowed to do this’. She added that anyone who ‘genuinely knew what was going on and they tried to cover it up’ should face criminal prosecution themselves. 

For others, the victory was bittersweet. Julian Wilson, who ran a post office in Astwood Bank, Worcestershire, died before his name was cleared. His widow Karen Wilson, 66, said: ‘I promised him I would kept on fighting. And today those judges said he was right. I’m not brave but this was such a massive wrong. 

‘For 13 years I have lived and breathed it. We almost lost everything.’ Mr Wilson’s daughter, Emma Jones, 47, said: ‘This is a bittersweet day for us. Very unjust, very unfair.’

Harjinder Butoy, subpostmaster in Nottingham who was convicted of theft and jailed for three years and four months in 2008, described the Post Office as ‘a disgrace’ after his conviction was overturned.He said his conviction and imprisonment ‘destroyed my life for 14 years – that’s not going to be replaced’, and said those responsible for the scandal ‘need to be punished, seriously punished’.  

In a statement after the ruling, Post Office chairman Tim Parker issued a grovelling apology for ‘the impact on the lives of these postmasters and their families that was caused by historical failures’.

The Post Office had spent £32million to deny any fault in Horizon before capitulating and has since paid a £58million settlement to 557 postmasters following an acrimonious High Court battle. It now faces a further 2,400 claims under a new compensation scheme.  

But lawyers representing the former postmasters claimed the Post Office ‘still appears to care little about the people whose lives it has destroyed’ and called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to announce a ‘judge-led public inquiry’, with the power to summons witnesses, into the prosecutions of postmasters. 

The Communication Workers Union called for criminal investigations into senior Post Office figures who ‘oversaw the criminalisation of hundreds of postmasters’ and called for former CEO Paula Vennells, who is said to have known that Horizon could cause money to appear to be missing, to be stripped of her CBE. 

Former post office worker Noel Thomas, who was convicted of false accounting in 2006, celebrates with his daughter Sian outside the Royal Courts of Justice

Former post office worker Noel Thomas, who was convicted of false accounting in 2006, celebrates with his daughter Sian outside the Royal Courts of Justice

Former post office worker Noel Thomas, who was convicted of false accounting in 2006, celebrates with his daughter Sian outside the Royal Courts of Justice

Former post office worker Janet Skinner (centre), with her niece Hayley Adams (right) and her daughter Toni Sisson, celebrating outside the Royal Courts of Justice

Former post office worker Janet Skinner (centre), with her niece Hayley Adams (right) and her daughter Toni Sisson, celebrating outside the Royal Courts of Justice

Former post office worker Janet Skinner (centre), with her niece Hayley Adams (right) and her daughter Toni Sisson, celebrating outside the Royal Courts of Justice

Former post office worker Tom Hedges (centre) pops a bottle champagne in celebration outside the Royal Courts of Justice

Former post office worker Tom Hedges (centre) pops a bottle champagne in celebration outside the Royal Courts of Justice

Former post office worker Tom Hedges (centre) pops a bottle champagne in celebration outside the Royal Courts of Justice

Pictured: Karen Wilson

Pictured: Karen Wilson

Karen Wilson, widow of postmaster Julian Wilson who died in 2016, holds a photograph of her husband outside the Royal Courts of Justice, London, after his conviction was overturned by the Court of Appeal

Postmaster Harjinder Butoy outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London after the landmark ruling today

Postmaster Harjinder Butoy outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London after the landmark ruling today

Postmaster Harjinder Butoy outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London after the landmark ruling today

Former Post Office sub-postmasters and supporters gather outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London

Former Post Office sub-postmasters and supporters gather outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London

Former Post Office sub-postmasters and supporters gather outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London 

From wrongful imprisonment to strokes and even suicide: How the Horizon IT scandal devastated victims’ lives 

Welsh postmaster jailed for nine months ‘fell off the ladder’ after conviction – before picking himself up and seeking challenge to Post Office prosecution

Noel Thomas was jailed for nine months in 2006 after he was accused of stealing £48,000

Noel Thomas was jailed for nine months in 2006 after he was accused of stealing £48,000

Noel Thomas was jailed for nine months in 2006 after he was accused of stealing £48,000

Noel Thomas was jailed for nine months in 2006 after he was accused of stealing £48,000 while he was working for the Post Office in Gaerwen on Anglesey.

He told the BBC that he admitted to the charge because he never reported discrepancies he noticed, but insisted he did not take the money and blamed the Horizon computer system.

‘I want everyone to have their name cleared and to get to the bottom of what has happened and where the money has gone to,’ Mr Thomas told BBC Newyddion 9.

‘Thirteen years after jail, I must admit it was hard but I gradually got my confidence back through family, friends and work colleagues.

‘Yes, I do feel bitter, and not just for myself – the Post Office have been coming and telling people that they have taken money, that they are a thief.’

Family of postmaster who killed himself after being wrongly accused of theft demand Post Office bosses are held accountable

Martin Griffiths, 59, took his own life in 2013 after he was falsely suspected of stealing money from Post Office

Martin Griffiths, 59, took his own life in 2013 after he was falsely suspected of stealing money from Post Office

Martin Griffiths, 59, took his own life in 2013 after he was falsely suspected of stealing money from Post Office

Father-of-two Martin Griffiths, 59, took his own life in 2013 after he was falsely suspected of stealing money from a Post Office in Ellesmere Port, where he had worked for around 20 years. 

Mr Griffiths was one of hundreds of postmasters who were suspected of false accounting and theft, with some fired or wrongfully convicted, after amounts appeared to vanish from their tills.  

The family of Mr Griffiths said he delved into his own savings and those of his parents to pay back around £60,000 he was wrongly suspected of taking from the branch.

The turmoil lasted for four years, between 2009 and 2013, and had a huge impact on the father-of-two’s physical and mental health, his family said.  

In 2013, Mr Griffiths parked his car on the A41 in Ellesmere Port after leaving a note for his loved ones and took his own life. 

His family have called for a stricter line of review from the Government and asked for a judge-led enquiry to get to the bottom of the injustices behind the scandal. 

Postmaster caught up in major IT scandal which saw many falsely accused of accounting fraud suffered a STROKE after he was hounded for £65,000

Peter Murray said he suffered a series of breakdowns and a stroke after he was hounded for £65,000

Peter Murray said he suffered a series of breakdowns and a stroke after he was hounded for £65,000

Peter Murray said he suffered a series of breakdowns and a stroke after he was hounded for £65,000

Peter Murray said he suffered a series of breakdowns and a stroke after he was hounded for £65,000. The 53-year-old, from Wallasey in Merseyside, has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

He said he was suspended without pay and forced to take out loans and borrow from friends to make monthly repayments to the Post Office. 

He paid £1,000 a month before learning that he was among many sub-postmasters to face false accusations.

‘It left me completely devastated,’ added the father of three. ‘It caused absolute havoc for my family, I have had several nervous breakdowns. It made me feel like a convict, but I’m not going to let it beat me.’

Wife finally clears name of her postmaster husband after he died while still facing false Post Office claim he had stolen £46,000

Marion Holmes, 78, won justice for her late husband, Peter Holmes, who was a respected postmaster in Jesmond, Newcastle, before the Post Office Horizon scandal 'destroyed' his good name

Marion Holmes, 78, won justice for her late husband, Peter Holmes, who was a respected postmaster in Jesmond, Newcastle, before the Post Office Horizon scandal 'destroyed' his good name

Marion Holmes, 78, won justice for her late husband, Peter Holmes, who was a respected postmaster in Jesmond, Newcastle, before the Post Office Horizon scandal ‘destroyed’ his good name

Marion Holmes, 78, won justice for her husband, Peter, who was a respected postmaster before the Post Office Horizon scandal ‘destroyed’ his good name. 

Ex-police officer Peter Holmes had successfully run a sub Post Office in Jesmond, Newcastle, for 13 years, before his world came crashing down due to issues with the Horizon computer system.

When more than £46,000 went missing from his books in 2008, Peter found police at his door and shocking criminal accusations made against him.

He was forced to admit four counts of false accounting in order to for prosecutors to drop charges of theft of the money, which could have seen him sent to prison.

In fact, Peter was one of a number of people wrongly prosecuted by the Post Office over errors its own system had made.

Family of one postmaster said he died a broken man after being forced to clean graves as punishment for a crime he did not commit

Julian Wilson (pictured with his wife Karen) was shattered by injustice and exhausted by his attempts to clear his name

Julian Wilson (pictured with his wife Karen) was shattered by injustice and exhausted by his attempts to clear his name

Julian Wilson (pictured with his wife Karen) was shattered by injustice and exhausted by his attempts to clear his name

Julian Wilson was shattered by injustice and exhausted by his attempts to clear his name, they said. He died in 2016, at the age of 67, of bowel cancer. His wife Karen says the disease had it roots in the trauma he endured and the all-consuming campaign for redemption.

For years the Post Office had stubbornly insisted its IT systems – called Horizon and designed by a company called Fujitsu – never lied, calling them ‘robust’.

Last year, following a court case brought by 557 postmasters, Mr Justice Fraser branded Horizon not ‘remotely robust’.

He added: ‘This approach by the Post Office has amounted, in reality, to bare assertions and denials that ignore what has actually occurred.

‘It amounts to the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the earth is flat.’

 

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Ed Miliband, Labour’s shadow business secretary, called for ‘a proper inquiry with teeth to get the bottom of how this scandal can have happened and who was responsible – to deliver the justice those impacted need and deserve’. 

The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), which investigates potential miscarriages of justice, also encouraged any former employees to consider challenging their convictions following the ruling.

Mr Johnson said the wrongful convictions of the 39 former Post Office staff were clear evidence of an ‘appalling justice’ and called for lessons to be learnt to ensure ‘this never happens again’.    

Speaking on a visit to a farm in Stoney Middleton, Derbyshire, the Prime Minister told reporters said: ‘I know the distress many subpostmasters and their families have felt for a very long time now through the Horizon scandal and I’m pleased that we’ve got the right judgment.

‘Our thoughts are very much with the victims and we’ll have to make sure that people get properly looked after because it’s clear that an appalling justice has been done. Everybody in my profession knows somebody in the Post Office world who has suffered from this and it’s very sad what has happened.

‘I think the Horizon thing has been really terrible for many families and I’m really glad the judgment has come, in I think, the right way. 

‘I hope that that will now be some relief for those families and for those people who, I think, have been unfairly penalised and suffered in an appalling miscarriage and we’ve got to make sure we look after them.’ 

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said the Post Office ‘must continue to reform’ after the Court of Appeal’s ruling.

He tweeted: ‘The court’s decision to overturn 39 postmasters’ convictions is welcome and marks another milestone for those affected by the Horizon IT scandal.

‘The tragic impact this has had on postmasters and their families cannot be overstated. The Post Office must continue to reform.’

In a statement Mr Parker said: ‘The Post Office is extremely sorry for the impact on the lives of these postmasters and their families that was caused by historical failures.

‘Post Office stopped prosecutions soon after its separation from Royal Mail a decade ago and has throughout this appeals process supported the overturning of the vast majority of convictions.

‘We are contacting other postmasters and Post Office workers with criminal convictions from past private Post Office prosecutions that may be affected, to assist them to appeal should they wish. 

‘Post Office continues to reform its operations and culture to ensure such events can never happen again.’

Nick Read, Post Office chief executive, said: ‘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.’ 

In a statement, Helen Pitcher, chairman of the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) – which referred the 42 subpostmasters’ convictions to the Court of Appeal – said: ‘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.

‘Six convictions had already been quashed which had been referred to Southwark Crown Court.

‘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.’

Neil Hudgell, from Hudgell Solicitors, who represented 29 of the former postmasters, said his clients were ‘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’. 

He said in a statement: ‘The Post Office still appears to care little about the people whose lives it has destroyed.

‘Ultimately, it has been found to have been an organisation that not only turned a blind eye to the failings in its hugely expensive IT system, but positively promoted a culture of cover-up and subterfuge in the pursuit of reputation and profit.

‘They readily accepted that loss of life, liberty and sanity for many ordinary people as a price worth paying in that pursuit.’

Mr Hudgell said the ‘scandal’ of the prosecution of subpostmasters ‘will only deepen should those involved not now finally face a fiercely-run investigation into how these prosecutions were conducted, what exactly was known as to the unreliability of the Horizon system when it was being used to ruin people’s lives, and whether people acted in a criminal manner’.

He called on Mr Johnson to announce a ‘judge-led public inquiry’, with the power to summons witnesses, into the prosecutions of subpostmasters.

Mr Hudgell added: ‘The time has come now for people at the Post Office who were involved in any way relating to these unsafe convictions to feel the uncomfortable breath of the law on their necks as our clients did.

‘If they are then found to have broken the law, they must then feel the full force of it too.’

The CCRC also said anyone who ‘believes their criminal conviction may be unsafe because of the impact on their case of performance issues with the Horizon computer system’ should consider challenging their conviction.

Andy Furey, CWU’s national officer for postmasters, said: ‘At long last, 39 innocent people have been exonerated for crimes they did not commit.

‘This has been one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in British history.

‘For years, decent and upstanding members of the community have been vilified through no fault of their own.

‘Their lives and the lives of their families have been devastated, and some have even died carrying the shame of unjust criminality on their shoulders.

‘The CWU is so glad that this long legal struggle has been won. But this isn’t the end of it.

‘Alongside appropriate financial compensation for all the victims of this injustice, there must be acknowledgement of the aggressive, despicable way that senior Post Office directors treated their loyal employees.’

Mr Furey said the CWU wanted the Post Office’s former CEO Paula Vennells to be stripped of her CBE.

Ms Vennells was the chief executive during the period where hundreds of postmasters were blamed for losses from branch accounts because of errors in the Horizon computer system.

An ordained priest, she joined the Post Office in 2007 and was promoted to CEO in 2012. She is said to have known that money could appear to be missing from the accounts.   

After leaving the Post Office, she landed roles as an adviser to the Cabinet Office and chairman of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust in London. She was given a CBE in 2019 for services to the Post Office and to charity.

The married mother-of-two kept the £4.5million she earnt during her Post Office tenure, and receives £140,000 a year advising supermarket chain Morrisons and homeware retailer Dunelm.

In June last year, she was forced to step back from the Church of England’s ethical investment advisory group due to the furore over the scandal.

In evidence to the Commons business committee she sought to shift the blame for the IT scandal, insisting she did not approve prosecutions of her staff and was misled by computer experts.  She was accused of treating postmasters ‘with contempt and derision’.

Mr Furey said: ‘Our union is demanding that Paula Vennells, the former CEO, be stripped of her CBE – which was awarded to her for services to the Post Office in 2019 – for her part in this scandal.

‘We also demand a criminal investigation against those who put loyal, decent workers in this diabolical situation.

‘Many senior figures who are complicit in this scandal will now want to run from this situation, but we must not let that happen.

‘Heads must roll for the humiliation and misery inflicted on decent, upstanding people who were simply providing much-needed local services and were pillars of their local communities.

‘It will be only when justice is done that the suffering of so many can be mended and these decent, loyal postmasters can get real closure.’

Della Robinson, 53, had her conviction quashed after she was sentenced to 140 hours of community service for false accounting in 2013.

Standing outside the Royal Courts of Justice, she told the PA news agency: ‘I feel we’ve achieved something, it’s been a victory. We’ve not won anything to be honest, because we’ll never get back what we lost, but it’s just an achievement for everybody, it’s so overwhelming.

‘We’ve proved that we’re innocent today, it’s not a matter of winning, it’s a matter of proving that we’ve done nothing wrong.’

She continued: ‘We lost the post office, we lost the building, for no fault of ours, it was just them trying to recoup their losses. We lost everything, but it never changed us as who we are.’

Ms Robinson said the mood was ‘ecstatic’ in the courtroom as the judgment was delivered.

She added: ‘We need a judicial inquiry and that is what we need to get forward now, to prosecute or whatever the people who have done this to us, because we still don’t know, who was behind it in the Post Office that has actually done this to people, it’s so cruel that you can’t even believe somebody could do that.’

Seema Misra, 45, said outside court: ‘The whole family is so grateful to the court for overturning my conviction … It must never happen again.’

Her husband, Davinder, 49, added: ‘We came here from India. We would never have believed this kind of injustice could happen in Britain.’

Alison Hall, 52, who ran a post office in West Yorkshire, told PA: ‘It’s been horrendous, Absolutely awful. My health has had so many issues I can’t talk about it, I’ve just bottled it up for 11 years.’

Her partner Richard Walker said: ‘People think there’s no smoke without fire, we’re born and bred in our community so for word to get out, people don’t always see the nice side. 

Former Post Office subpostmaster Noel Thomas reacts to the verdict outside The High Court

Former Post Office subpostmaster Noel Thomas reacts to the verdict outside The High Court

Protesters outside the Royal Courts of Justice  where dozens of former subpostmasters who were convicted of theft, fraud and false accounting, because of the Post Office's defective Horizon accounting system had their names cleared

Protesters outside the Royal Courts of Justice  where dozens of former subpostmasters who were convicted of theft, fraud and false accounting, because of the Post Office's defective Horizon accounting system had their names cleared

Former Post Office subpostmaster Noel Thomas (left) reacts to the verdict outside The High Court

Former post office worker Noel Thomas, who was convicted of false accounting in 2006, celebrates with his daughter Sian outside the Royal Courts of Justice

Former post office worker Noel Thomas, who was convicted of false accounting in 2006, celebrates with his daughter Sian outside the Royal Courts of Justice

Former post office worker Noel Thomas, who was convicted of false accounting in 2006, celebrates with his daughter Sian outside the Royal Courts of Justice

Former post office worker Janet Skinner (centre), with her niece Hayley Adams (right) and her daughter Toni Sisson, celebrating outside the Royal Courts of Justice

Former post office worker Janet Skinner (centre), with her niece Hayley Adams (right) and her daughter Toni Sisson, celebrating outside the Royal Courts of Justice

Former post office worker Janet Skinner (centre), with her niece Hayley Adams (right) and her daughter Toni Sisson, celebrating outside the Royal Courts of Justice

What was the Horizon computer system and how did it go wrong?

Between 1999 and 2015, hundreds of postmasters were sacked or prosecuted after money appeared to go missing from their branch accounts (file image)

Between 1999 and 2015, hundreds of postmasters were sacked or prosecuted after money appeared to go missing from their branch accounts (file image)

Between 1999 and 2015, hundreds of postmasters were sacked or prosecuted after money appeared to go missing from their branch accounts (file image) 

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.

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‘Our post office still operates and we live on the premises so you can imagine how difficult that is, every day we’re reminded of what happened. It’s been gruelling.’

Supporting calls for a public inquiry into the scandal, Ms Hall added: ‘I would like a personal apology from the Post Office but I know I’m not going to get one. It all needs to come out.’

Speaking after her conviction was quashed, she said she felt ‘Relief, massive relief now, it’s the end of it all after 11 years of hell, now we’re here now, the day has come. It was so nice listening to it especially when your name got called out and when he said that word, quashed, that was the word we could hear.’

Asked what she would do after the ruling, she said: ‘We’re going to go find a pub and have a glass of champagne.’ 

Ms Felstead also supported calls for a public inquiry into the Horizon scandal.

Asked what she was going to do now that her name had finally been cleared, she said: ‘I’m going to travel home now and celebrate with my family, and try and digest that this has actually happened.’

Janet Skinner – who pleaded guilty to false accounting and was sentenced to nine months in prison in 2007 – left the Royal Courts of Justice in London to cheers from former subpostmasters and their supporters.

Speaking outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London, Ms Skinner said she was ‘relieved’ to have finally cleared her name.

She added that to win her case on both grounds of appeal was ‘amazing’.

Asked what her message was to those responsible for the prosecutions of dozens of subpostmasters, Ms Skinner said: ‘Watch your backs.’

Grandmother Jo Hamilton, who was given a 12-month supervision order and ran a post office in South Warnborough, Hampshire, said after the ruling: ‘It’s been a journey but I always imagined I would get here and I kept that focus.’ 

She added: ‘I knew we would get here. I just didn’t expect it to take this long.’ 

The court also allowed 39 of the appeals on the basis that their prosecutions were an affront to the public conscience. 

Lord Justice Holroyde, sitting with Mr Justice Picken and Mrs Justice Farbey, said: ‘Post Office Limited’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.’

However, three of the former postmasters – Wendy Cousins, Stanley Fell and Neelam Hussain – had their appeals dismissed by the court.  

Lord Justice Holroyde said the Court of Appeal had concluded that, in those three cases, ‘the reliability of Horizon data was not essential to the prosecution case and that the convictions are safe’. 

In the Court of Appeal’s written ruling, Lord Justice Holroyde said Post Office Limited (POL) ‘knew that there were problems with Horizon’.

The judge added: ‘POL knew that subpostmasters around the country had complained of inexplicable discrepancies in the accounts.

‘POL knew that different bugs, defects and errors had been detected well beyond anything which might be regarded as a period of initial teething problems.

‘In short, POL knew that there were serious issues about the reliability of Horizon.’

Lord Justice Holroyde continued: ‘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. 

Protesters outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London, April 23, 2021 ahead of the ruling

Protesters outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London, April 23, 2021 ahead of the ruling

Protesters outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London, April 23, 2021 ahead of the ruling 

Former subpostmasters Janet Skinner, Seema Misra and Tracy Felstead outside the Royal Courts of Justice, London, on March 23, 2021

Former subpostmasters Janet Skinner, Seema Misra and Tracy Felstead outside the Royal Courts of Justice, London, on March 23, 2021

Former subpostmasters Janet Skinner, Seema Misra and Tracy Felstead outside the Royal Courts of Justice, London, on March 23, 2021

Paula Vennells: Post Office boss who ‘knew that Horizon could make money appear to be missing’ as postmasters were blamed for losses – and who sought to shift blame for IT scandal

Paula Vennells is said to have known that money could appear to be missing from branch accounts because of errors in the Horizon computer system

Paula Vennells is said to have known that money could appear to be missing from branch accounts because of errors in the Horizon computer system

Paula Vennells is said to have known that money could appear to be missing from branch accounts because of errors in the Horizon computer system

Paula Vennells was the chief executive of the Post Office during the period where hundreds of postmasters were blamed for losses from branch accounts because of errors in the Horizon computer system.

Mrs Vennells, an ordained priest, joined the Post Office in 2007 and was promoted to CEO in 2012. She is said to have known that money could appear to be missing from the accounts.  

Over two decades, hundreds of postmasters were bankrupted, sacked or jailed. 

After leaving the Post Office, she landed roles as an adviser to the Cabinet Office and chairman of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust in London. She was given a CBE in 2019 for services to the Post Office and to charity.

The married mother-of-two kept the £4.5million she earnt during her Post Office tenure, and receives £140,000 a year advising supermarket chain Morrisons and homeware retailer Dunelm.

In June last year, she was forced to step back from the Church of England’s ethical investment advisory group due to the furore over the scandal.

In evidence to the Commons business committee she sought to shift the blame for the IT scandal, insisting she did not approve prosecutions of her staff and was misled by computer experts. 

She was accused of treating postmasters ‘with contempt and derision’.

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‘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 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 subpostmasters knowing about those issues.’

The court’s written ruling also said: ‘These pervasive failures of investigation and disclosure went in each case to the very heart of the prosecution.  

‘Whatever charges were brought against an individual appellant, and whatever pleas may ultimately have been accepted, the whole basis of each prosecution was that money was missing from the branch account: there was an actual shortfall, which had been caused by theft on the part of the subpostmaster, or at best had been covered up by false accounting or fraud on the part of the subpostmaster.

‘But in the ‘Horizon cases’, there was no evidence of a shortfall other than the Horizon data.

‘If the Horizon data was not reliable, there was no basis for the prosecution.

‘The failures of investigation and disclosure prevented the appellants from challenging, or challenging effectively, the reliability of the data.

‘In short, POL as prosecutor brought serious criminal charges against the subpostmasters on the basis of Horizon data, and by its failures to discharge its clear duties it prevented them from having a fair trial on the issue of whether that data was reliable.’ 

Allowing 39 of the appeals on the grounds that those subpostmasters’ prosecutions were ‘an affront to the conscience of the court’, Lord Justice Holroyde said: ‘Throughout the period covered by these prosecutions POL’s approach to investigation and disclosure was influenced by what was in the interests of POL, rather than by what the law required.’ 

The judge said there was ‘clear evidence of systemic failures by POL over many years’, with the same failures occurring in ‘case after case, year after year’.

He added: ‘POL as prosecutor knew that the consequences of conviction for a subpostmaster would be, and were, severe … many of these appellants went to prison.’ 

The judge continued: ‘Those that did not suffered other penalties imposed by the courts; all would have experienced the anxiety associated with what they went through; all suffered financial losses, in some cases resulting in bankruptcy; some suffered breakdowns in family relationships; some were unable to find or retain work as a result of their convictions – causing further financial and emotional burdens; some suffered breakdowns in health; all suffered the shame and humiliation of being reduced from a respected local figure to a convicted criminal; and three … have gone to their graves carrying that burden.’

The Post Office 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 had opposed 35 of those 39 cases on a second ground of appeal, which is that the prosecutions were ‘an affront to justice’.  

At the hearing last month, 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.’  

Former subpostmasters Janet Skinner (left) and Tracy Felstead (right) outside the Royal Courts of Justice ahead of their appeal against a conviction of theft, fraud and false accounting

Former subpostmasters Janet Skinner (left) and Tracy Felstead (right) outside the Royal Courts of Justice ahead of their appeal against a conviction of theft, fraud and false accounting

Former subpostmasters Janet Skinner (left) and Tracy Felstead (right) outside the Royal Courts of Justice ahead of their appeal against a conviction of theft, fraud and false accounting

Jo Hamilton outside the Royal Courts of Justice, London, on March 22, 2021

Jo Hamilton outside the Royal Courts of Justice, London, on March 22, 2021

Jo Hamilton outside the Royal Courts of Justice, London, on March 22, 2021

EX-POST OFFICE WORKER WENT THROUGH 12 YEARS OF ‘ABSOLUTE HELL’ 

Former post office worker Vijay Parekh from Willesden, with his wife Gita (left) and daughter Bhavisha

Former post office worker Vijay Parekh from Willesden, with his wife Gita (left) and daughter Bhavisha

Former post office worker Vijay Parekh from Willesden, with his wife Gita (left) and daughter Bhavisha

A former post office worker who was wrongly jailed because of the Horizon scandal has described his experience as ‘absolute hell’.

Vijay Parekh, 62, ran a post office in Willesden, north-west London and was given an 18-month jail term after being accused of stealing £78,000 and admitting theft.

A court has now cleared the names of 39 former subpostmasters after the reliability of the Horizon accounting system was revealed to be defective.

He said: ‘The last 12 years have been absolute hell.’

Mr Parekh said he had moved to a post office 14 years ago after working in the rail industry.

‘Three years later this happened,’ he said after the ruling.

‘I was given 18 months and spent six months in prison.

‘Then I had a tag.

‘In prison you are in a room with one other person.

‘You don’t know what they’ve done.

‘You cry, you cannot get to sleep.

‘You ring home and everyone at home is crying.

‘Afterwards you can’t work because of the CRB check.

‘And, of course, nobody listens in prison.

‘Because in prison everyone in innocent.’

His daughter Bhavisha, 38, is a barrister.

‘I’d just qualified as a barrister when it happened – I work as an in-house lawyer now,’ said Miss Parekh.

‘I could see that my dad was innocent.

‘You could see the gaps.

‘But we couldn’t get the Post Office evidence.

‘I felt so frustrated because it’s my trade.

‘It disillusioned me about working in the law.

‘I think it could happen again.

‘The Post Office have investigation powers but they’re not investigators.

‘Why do they have those powers?’

Miss Parekh said her father had not yet thought about compensation claims.

‘It’s not something we’ve out our minds to yet,’ she said.

‘We’ve really just been focusing on today.

‘I think it’s quite a complicated area – how many cases have there been like this?

‘But going forward I think it is possibly something that we will think about.’

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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 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. 

Speaking ahead of today’s ruling, former postmaster Noel Thomas tearfully revealed how he was imprisoned after he was accused of stealing thousands of pounds. 

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that after his conviction he ‘fell off the ladder’, falling from grace within the Anglesey community. 

The former council worker added that he believed he will cleared today and is seeking modest compensation from the Post Office after losing an estimated £250,000 as a result of the conviction.

‘It’s been hard, its been difficult, the last year’s been very difficult,’ he said. ‘We lost our eldest son through cancer. He was 50. You know, it’s not easy. 

‘I was accused of theft, my Post Office here in the village was found to be over £50,000 short. I had been in touch with the Post Office, they kept telling me: ‘Carry on, we’ll sort it out.’ 

‘Then I had a knock on the door at half past seven in the morning from two auditors. I explained there was a shortage, they agreed with me when they finished, but in the meantime two investigating officers turned up.

‘I was accused of theft and in about 12 months time the following year, 2006, I was sent to prison. But of course, you see, I found people, other people that were in the same situation, and gradually of course we started meeting one another, going to different parts of the country, getting to know other colleagues, and you know, the pattern was there.

‘You’re pretty respectable in your own village, people relied – I did about 16 years council work. I was involved in other different things and you know, I really fell off the ladder. You soon find who your friends are, if you know what I mean.

‘I had very genuine friends, and working part-time in the garden centre and I’ve got fantastic colleagues, they’ve been behind me all the way.’

He went on: ‘I’ve been told that I’m going to be cleared. There’s four of us in a category A and B situation. 

‘We were supposed to be cleared last November but unfortunately that got cancelled and my solicitors did try to get the four of us acquitted straight away but unfortunately with the CCRC sending 46 of us to the High Courts the Law Lords said: ‘No no, we want to deal with everybody together.”

Asked if he was seeking compensation, Mr Thomas said: ‘Yes, I’ll be honest with you, I don’t want a load of money, all I want is my money back, the money I worked for. 

‘I reckon I lost about a quarter of a million in this, I was lucky to sell my house, I sold it very cheaply… my salary went which at the time was between 30 and 32,000 a year, and you know my council salary as well – so I was earning somewhere in the region of about 40-45,000 a year.’ 

Janet Skinner, 50, pleaded guilty to false accounting and was sentenced to nine months in prison in 2007. Ms Skinner, from Hull, told the PA news agency she was hoping to finally ‘get my name cleared’.

Speaking outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London, Ms Skinner said there had been ‘too many twists and turns in this case’ for her to assume the Court of Appeal would overturn her conviction.

She added: ‘When it all started for me in 2006, I never thought anyone would believe anything I said.’

Grandmother Jo Hamilton said before the hearing: ‘I think this is the biggest miscarriage of justice.

‘You think of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four – but there are hundreds of us. I was 45 when this started. It’s taken up nearly a third of my life. You think it’s never going to end.’

Mrs Hamilton said she admitted false accounting after being accused of stealing £36 000. ‘I was given a 12-month supervision order and have a criminal record,’ she said.

‘But I did nothing wrong. I told them about the problem but they said I was the only one.’ 

Ms Shaheen was jailed in November 2010 and ultimately had to sell her home and was forced to live in a van.

She told the PA news agency: ‘It made me feel very small, that I was a criminal when the judge said it, which I never was and I knew I hadn’t done it.’

She served three months in prison, telling PA: ‘It was terrible, really. I tried to keep my head down, keep out of everybody’s way so I could do my time and just get out.’

Ms Shaheen said she was ‘really excited but very anxious’ to hear the Court of Appeal’s decision.

‘It would be nice to have a written apology off (the Post Office) and then everybody who dealt with our cases, who did this to us, to be put into the dock and pay for it,’ she added.

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.’ 

Link hienalouca.com

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