The Post Office Scandal: 33 sub-post masters to have convictions quashed
Following what has been described as the biggest miscarriage of justice in British history, it can now be reported that 33 former sub-post masters will have their convictions overturned.
Of the 47 sub-post masters whose convictions had been identified by the Criminal Cases Review Commission as suitable for appeal, Tim Moloney QC and Kate O’Raghallaigh represent 34. Tim and Kate are instructed by Dr. Neil Hudgell of Hudgell Solicitors, assisted by Abby Taylor.
The announcement marks the latest development in what has become known as the ‘Post Office Scandal’. The extraordinary scandal dates back to 1999, when Post Office Ltd. introduced a new transaction and accounting computer system called ‘Horizon’ into its branches. The system, designed by Fujitsu, was the principal means by which transactions were processed and recorded in post offices nationwide.
Horizon, however, was a deeply flawed system. It recorded incorrect figures, contained bugs, faults and was responsible for recording significant financial shortfalls in hundreds of branches – in short, the system caused money to ‘disappear’. Many sub-post masters, faced with threats of dismissal from the Post Office, had no option but to make up the shortfalls with their own money. Many of them incurred significant debt and hardship in order to do so. The first known report of flaws in Horizon was made in 2000 by Alan Bates, a sub-post master in Craig-y-Don. However, rather than investigate the emerging body of evidence about the problems with Horizon, the Post Office – which acted as a private prosecutor – prosecuted hundreds of sub-post masters for theft and false accounting offences in Magistrates’ and Crown Courts throughout the UK.
Many sub-post masters attempted to defend themselves in court by pointing to defects in Horizon. The Post Office did not accept any criticism of Horizon and did not disclose material to defendants which showed that there were persistent complaints about Horizon nationwide. Many sub-post masters pleaded guilty, having felt unable to way to effectively defend themselves against the resources and intransigence of the Post Office. Many sub-post masters went to prison. Many became bankrupt. Two have since died. One committed suicide. It is believed that as many as 900 sub-post masters were prosecuted.
In 2012, the Post Office commissioned independent forensic accountancy firm Second Sight to carry out an independent review of Horizon. Second Sight produced its interim report in 2013, which described the Horizon system as, in some cases, "not fit for purpose". The report concluded that the initial Post Office investigation had not looked for the cause of the errors, instead accusing the sub-postmasters of theft. The Second Sight report was dismissed by the Post Office but was leaked to the BBC in September 2014. Following an investigation by BBC’s Panorama in 2015, it was discovered that Fujitsu had accessed branch Horizon systems remotely without the knowledge of Sub Postmasters. Second Sight are now providing expert assistance to dozens of the sub-postmaster appellants, including all of Tim and Kate’s clients' appeals.
Following the formation of the Justice for Subpostmasters’ Alliance by Alan Bates in 2009, pioneering investigative work by Nick Wallis for the BBC and a debate in Westminster Hall in 2014, the cause of the sub-post masters gained national attention.
On 21 March 2017 and 2019, a Group Litigation Order was issued in relation to sub-post masters’ claims against the Post Office. The GLO covered claims relating to losses sustained by the sub-post masters as a result of Horizon, criminal prosecutions, bankruptcy proceedings and unfair contract terms. There were in excess of 500 claimants. The claims were settled in 2019 for £58m.
In March 2019, Mr. Justice Fraser found against the Post Office on the evidence relating to Horizon: Bates & Ors v. Post Office Ltd. (Judgement No. 6) “Horizon Issues”  EWHC 3408 (QB). Fraser J made detailed findings about the long-standing defects in Horizon, finding that the Post Office had shown a “pattern of defensiveness” and “a lack of transparency”. He invited the Director of Public Prosecutions to investigate the actions of Fujitsu. In a scathing indictment of the Post Office’s conduct, Mr. Justice Fraser said:
“This approach by the Post Office has amounted, in reality, to bare assertions and denials that ignore what has actually occurred, at least so far as the witnesses called before me in the Horizon Issues trial are concerned. It amounts to the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the earth is flat.”
Between March and June 2020, the CCRC identified 47 cases which had a realistic prospect of being overturned. This morning’s development reflects the fact that the Post Office has chosen not to contest 33 of Tim and Kate’s clients.
The UK Government has recently appointed Mr. Justice Wyn-Williams to lead an inquiry into the scandal, including the actions of Fujitsu.
Tim and Kate continue to represent several sub-post masters whose cases are before the CCRC.
For information about the Justice for Subpostmasters’ Alliance, click here.