The Post Office Scandal: Court of Appeal finds that prosecution of sub-post masters was “an affront to justice”

Tim Moloney QC and Kate O’Raghallaigh appear for 30 appellants in a landmark decision of the Court of Appeal, in which the Court has quashed the convictions of 39 sub-post masters and found that their prosecutions were an abuse of process.

In a historic decision handed down this morning, the Court of Appeal held that the prosecution of sub-post masters by Post Office Limited between 2003 and 2013 was an abuse of process and an “affront to justice”.

The Court of Appeal has found that the investigative and disclosure failings of Post Office Limited were “so egregious as to make the prosecution of any of the “Horizon cases” an affront to the conscience of the court” and that, in their conduct of the prosecutions, the Post Office “reversed the burden of proof”

It is extremely rare for the Court of Appeal to decide that a prosecution has amounted to an affront to justice. That such a finding has been made in relation to so many cases, and in relation to the conduct of a single private prosecutor, is unprecedented.

At paragraph 137 of its judgment, the Court stated:

“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”

The judgment has been published here.

For national coverage of today’s decision, see here and here.

This morning’s decision marks the latest development in the ‘Post Office scandal’, and what has been described as the biggest miscarriage of justice in British history. 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-postmaster 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"

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.

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” [2019] 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.

The UK Government has recently appointed Mr. Justice Wyn-Williams to lead an inquiry into the scandal, including the actions of Fujitsu.

Between March and June 2020, the CCRC identified 47 cases which had a realistic prospect of being 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, 30 of whose cases were determined by the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) today. Tim and Kate are instructed by Dr. Neil Hudgell of Hudgell Solicitors, assisted by Abby Taylor.  

Tim and Kate continue to represent several sub-post masters whose cases are before the CCRC.