This is not just a failed IT system this is a failed justice system that ruined lives and sent innocent people to prison on mass
39 postmasters accused of theft by Post Office due to faulty IT system have convictions overturned
The appellants, some of whom were imprisoned for crimes they never committed, had been accused of theft and false accounting because of a faulty computer system.
In court, Sam Stein QC, the barrister representing several sub-postmasters, said the scandal had turned the Post Office “into the nation’s most untrustworthy brand”.
one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in English legal history, 39 people who were prosecuted after the Horizon IT system installed by the Post Office and supplied by Fujitsu falsely suggested there were cash shortfalls, had their names cleared on Friday.
Campaigners believe that as many as 900 operators, often known as subpostmasters, may have been prosecuted and convicted between 2000 and 2014.
The Post Office prosecuted more than 700 sub-postmasters, on average one a week, after a bug in the computer system Horizon led to financial shortfalls in branch accounts.
Following the convictions – including theft, fraud and false accounting – some former postmasters went to prison, were shunned by their communities and struggled to secure work.
Some lost their homes, and even failed to get insurance owing to their convictions. Some have since died.
They always said the fault was in the computer system, which had been used to manage post office finances since 1999.
In his written judgment, Lord Justice Holroyde, sitting with Mr Justice Picken and Mrs Justice Farbey, said of the 39 cleared: “Many of these appellants went to prison; 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 human tragedy in all this is beyond measure
The Post Office settled the civil claim brought by 555 claimants for £57.75m – amounting to £12m after legal costs – without admitting liability, in December 2019.
In the high court, Mr Justice Fraser found the Fujitsu-developed Horizon system contained “bugs, errors and defects” and that there was a “material risk” shortfalls in branch accounts were caused by the system.
The 42 argued their convictions were unsafe because in light of evidence, including Fraser’s findings, the trial process must have been unfair and it was an affront to the public conscience for them to face prosecution.
The Post Office conceded the first ground in relation to the 39 who were cleared but only conceded the second in relation to four of them. The court cleared all 39 on both grounds but rejected three other appeals, which the Post Office had fully opposed, the judges concluding that the Horizon data was not central to those cases.
Holroyde said the Post Office, which brought the prosecutions itself, “knew that there were serious issues about the reliability of Horizon”.
He wrote: “The failures of investigation and disclosure were in our judgment so egregious as to make the prosecution of any of the ‘Horizon cases’ an affront to the conscience of the court.
“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.
“Denied any disclosure of material capable of undermining the prosecution case, defendants were inevitably unable to discharge that improper burden. As each prosecution proceeded to its successful conclusion the asserted reliability of Horizon was, on the face of it, reinforced. 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.”
No one has ever been held accountable for the scandal, although in November last year, the Metropolitan police said it had opened an investigation into potential perjury by IT experts from Fujitsu, in relation to evidence they gave during the criminal trials.
The government has announced an inquiry into the scandal but the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance has demanded its terms of reference must be widened to include the Post Office’s role in the prosecutions, that it be put on a statutory basis to compel witnesses to give evidence under oath and removed from the sponsorship of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which owns the Post Office.
After the judgments, Boris Johnson welcomed the decision, and tweeted: “Lessons should and will be learnt to ensure this never happens again.”
The Post Office chairman, Tim Parker, expressed his sorrow for the impact on all affected and said it had “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.”