Dozens of Post Office staff who claim they were victims of a massive 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 installed in Post Office branches.
Between 1999 and 2015, a staggering 736 staff were sacked by the Post Office or prosecuted after money appeared to go missing.
Those who were not forced to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit were hounded out of work or forced to pay back thousands of pounds, while many described subsequently losing their homes and marriages.
Some have died with convictions against their name, with one postmaster, Martin Griffiths, taking his own life after he was falsely suspected of taking £60,000.
Lawyers representing the group of 42 accused the Post Office of concealing evidence of serious defects in the IT system ‘from the courts, prosecutors and defence’ to protect the institution ‘at all costs’.
The Post Office spent £32million to deny any fault in Horizon before capitulating. It has already paid a £58million settlement to 557 postmasters following a 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.
Protesters outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London, April 23, 2021, where dozens of former subpostmasters who were convicted of theft, fraud and false accounting
Between 1999 and 2015, hundreds of postmasters were sacked or prosecuted after money appeared to go missing from their branch accounts (file image)
Former subpostmasters Janet Skinner, Seema Misra and Tracy Felstead outside the Royal Courts of Justice, London, on March 23, 2021
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 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.’
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.
Speaking ahead of today’s ruling, former postmaster Noel Thomas tearfully revealed how he was imprisoned after he was accused of stealing more than £50,000.
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 believes 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.
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
Taxpayer will foot the bill for Post Office IT fiasco
The Post Office faces a bill of ‘hundreds of millions of pounds’ after it was deluged with claims from 2,400 sub-postmasters in the wake of the Horizon IT scandal.
Ministers yesterday revealed the taxpayer will bail out the Government-owned company as the cost is ‘beyond what the Post Office can afford’.
Between 1999 and 2015, hundreds of postmasters were sacked or prosecuted after money appeared to go missing from their branch accounts.
Post Office bosses were told glitches in the Horizon computer terminals in branches may be to blame but pursued prosecutions anyway. 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.
Dozens more will head to court to claim once their convictions have been overturned, with the biggest payouts likely to exceed £100,000. A lawyer involved in the case said the bill could run ‘into the hundreds of millions of pounds’.
Small business minister Paul Scully said: ‘The Government will provide sufficient financial support to the Post Office to ensure that the [compensation] scheme can proceed.’
He added that the number of applicants was ‘higher than the Post Office had anticipated’ and ‘the cost of the scheme is beyond what the business can afford’.
Sandip Patel QC, who represents some postmasters, said: ‘I would not be surprised to see potential claims in excess of £100,000, and in some instances it could be very much higher than that.The Post Office said: ‘Our priority is to fairly resolve the applications… as soon as possible.’
‘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, 63, who was given a 12-month supervision order and ran a post office in South Warnborough, Hampshire, 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.’
Rubbina Shaheen, 56, is another former sub-postmaster waiting to hear if the Court of Appeal will overturn her conviction.
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.’
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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