By Tony Collins
A Court of Appeal hearing tomorrow (17 December) may help to determine whether the Post Office IT scandal goes deeper than is generally supposed.
The hearing relates to 47 appeals of sub-postmasters who were convicted on the basis of evidence derived from a faulty computer system Horizon which is installed in about 11,500 post offices. Horizon was built by Fujitsu.
Last week Southwark Crown Court quashed the convictions of six former sub-postmasters who had been prosecuted on the basis of Horizon data. Hundreds of other similar convictions may end up being quashed. Fujitsu and the Post Office had given the impression to courts and juries that Horizon was “robust”. But the High Court last year ruled that Horizon was “not remotely robust” and showed numerous cash shortfalls for which sub-postmasters were wrongly blamed.
The High Court ruling came after former sub-postmaster Alan Bates led a group of 550 former sub-postmasters who sued the Post Office to prove that the institution was wrong to insist that Horizon was robust. The appeal cases follow his successful litigation.
In referring 47 potentially unsafe convictions of sub-postmasters to the Court of Appeal, the Criminal Cases Review Commission gave two sets of reasons. Journalist Nick Wallis reported on the Commission’s arguments on his Post Office Trial website.
In the first set of reasons, the Commission said convictions were unsafe because Horizon evidence used by the Post Office was potentially unreliable. The Commission also argued the Post Office failed to disclose to postmasters what it knew about Horizon’s reliability and did not investigate shortfalls properly before jumping to the conclusion that postmasters had stolen money.
The Post Office does not dispute this first set of the Commission’s reasons. Indeed, the Post Office is not opposing 44 of the 47 appeals.
But the Post Office is likely to oppose the Commission’s second set of reasons. Here, the Commission argues that the Post Office knew it was not possible for sub-postmasters to have a fair trial when evidence about the reliability of Horizon was not presented to court. The Commission also argues that the Post Office knew it was not possible for Subpostmasters to have a fair trial but proceeded anyway.
In this second set of reasons, the Commission says the whole approach to prosecuting subpostmasters was an “affront to the public conscience“.
Tomorrow’s hearing is expected to determine whether the Court of Appeal considers the Commission’s “affront to public conscience” arguments to be relevant in the 47 appeal cases which are due to heard in March next year.
If the Court of Appeal accepts the Commission’s “affront” argument as relevant tomorrow, it may make it harder for Whitehall to manage a deepening scandal. Nick Wallis has reported that Whitehall wanted the whole scandal to “go away”. The “affront” argument also draws attention to systemic defects in the criminal justice system that allowed hundreds of sub-postmasters to be convicted of crimes on the basis of data from a flawed computer system. If accepted by the Court of Appeal, the affront argument may strengthen the hand of sub-postmasters whose lawyers are considering cases of possible malicious prosecution.
If the Court of Appeal rejects the relevance of the affront argument, it may make it easier for ministers and civil servants to argue that injustices happened largely because of a technicality: that sub-postmasters were prosecuted on the basis of incomplete computer evidence. The implication here is that the Post Office and prosecutors had reason to believe crimes had been committed but it has since become clear there were inadequacies in the prosecution’s evidence.
Nick Wallis sets out the Commission’s arguments in an excellent article here.
History made as subpostmasters wrongly prosecuted in Horizon IT scandal have convictions quashed – Computer Weekly’s Karl Flinders
Recommendations for the probity of computer evidence – a paper by barrister Paul Marshall and computer specialists who include Peter Ladkin, Bev Littlewood, Stephen Mason and Martyn Thomas.
Unconditional support – Tim McCormack on the government’s financial support of the Post Office.