By Tony Collins
The Court of Appeal has today quashed the convictions of 39 business people who ran or worked in branch post offices and became victims of miscarriages of justice on an unprecedented scale. Three appeal judges spoke of the “human cost and consequences” of the prosecutions.
The sub-postmasters and sub-mistresses were wrongly blamed for shortfalls shown on the Post Office’s defective Horizon system supplied by Fujitsu. Journalist Nick Wallis has reported the appeal hearings minute-by-minute on Twitter.
The three appeal judges said,
“Post Office Limited as prosecutor brought serious criminal charges against the sub-postmasters on the basis of Horizon data, and by failing to discharge its duties it prevented them from having a fair trial on the issue of whether that data was reliable…
“We refer to the human costs and consequences of the prosecutions in those cases.
“All of the sub-postmasters were persons of previous good character. Very sadly, three are now deceased. .We conclude that Post Office Ltd’s failures of investigation and disclosure were 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, Post Office Ltd 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.
“Post Office Ltd as prosecutor knew that the consequences of conviction for a sub-postmaster would be, and were, severe… it is important here to state that 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 –all “Horizon cases”–have gone to their graves carrying that burden.
” Inevitably, the families of the sub-postmasters have also suffered. In each of the “Horizon cases” it is now rightly conceded that those human costs and consequences were suffered after the denial by Post Office of a fair trial.
“… Post Office Ltd’s failings of investigation and disclosure ‘directly implicate the courts’.
“If the full picture had been disclosed, as it should have been, none of these prosecutions would have taken the course it did before the Crown Court. No judge would have been placed in the unhappy position of learning – as some judges (or retired judges) will do if they read this judgment –that they unwittingly sentenced a person who had been prevented by the prosecutor from having a fair trial.”
Congratulations to all who have campaigned for justice but particularly Alan Bates whose perseverance and efforts to raise enough money to sue the Post Office built a path to the quashing of the convictions today.
But the IT scandal continues. It is a “national outrage” – as Lord Arbuthnot puts it – that the government’s Horizon IT inquiry is barred from questioning the mass of wrongful convictions. It’s like barring a government Windrush inquiry from questioning unjustified deporations.
Today’s comments by the judges tacitly indict a criminal justice system that allowed such human suffering and on such a scale. The suspicion now is that Whitehall is too deeply involved in the scandal to be objective. Government officials have set up an inquiry that, as Alan Bates puts it, is intended to be a “whitewash”.
Today’s verdict is a reminder that Whitehall ought not to promising open government while perpetuating a cover-up.
What is the point of appeal judges criticising the Post Office’s lack of proper investigations and disclosure over the Horizon system when government and its officials are unashamedly avoiding any open investigation, disclosure of documents or accountability over, potentially, hundreds of wrongful convictions?