By Tony Collins
The Post Office Horizon IT scandal became part of legal history yesterday when the Criminal Cases Review Commission referred an unprecedented 39 potentially unsafe criminal convictions to the Court of Appeal.
The grounds for referral were “abuse of process” – a term that suggests the integrity of the criminal justice system might have been compromised.
Helen Pitcher, chairman of the Criminal Cases Review Commission, said in a statement yesterday: “This [39 applicants] is by some distance the largest number of cases we will ever have referred for appeal at one time.”
The 39 convictions were for theft, fraud and false accounting. They are being referred on the basis of an argument that “each prosecution amounted to an abuse of process”.
The Commission did not explain what it meant by “abuse of process” but the Crown Prosecution Service gives general guidance on what the term means.
In exceptional circumstances, an “abuse o process” is cited by courts when they intervene to stop a prosecution because of “bad faith, unlawfulness or executive misconduct”.
The term “abuse of process” has been defined as “something so unfair and wrong that the court should not allow a prosecutor to proceed with what is in all other respect a regular proceeding”.
It can also refer to a past prosecution that was manifestly unfair for reasons that have only since become apparent.
The Criminal Cases Review Commission is a statutory body set up to review suspected miscarriages of justice. Its commissioners have been looking at the safety of convictions that were based on evidence from the Post Office’s Horizon branch accounting system.
The commissioners have taken into account judgements in civil court trials related to the Horizon system. The judge managing the trials, Mr Justice Fraser, found that the Post Office tried to mislead him about the Horizon system. Flaws in Horizon were kept hidden while the Post Office wrongly pursued sub-postmasters for money they did not owe.
Using its power to prosecute without using the Crown Prosecution Service, the Post Office prosecuted dozens of former sub-postmasters citing evidence from Horizon. Mr Justice Fraser found that Horizon was not as robust as the Post Office said it was.
Yesterday’s announcement of the 39 referrals is likely to put the legal spotlight on the Post Office prosecutors. The Appeal Court may consider questions of whether the integrity of the criminal justice system has been compromised.
A Post Office statement yesterday on the referrals said,
“The Post Office has been assisting the Criminal Cases Review Commission since applications were first made to them by a number of former postmasters. We have always accepted our serious obligations and responsibilities to the Commission’s work.
We have not yet received statements of reasons from the Commission about the referrals they are making to the Court of Appeal. We will be looking carefully at the Commission’s decision when we have that information and continue to fulfil all their requirements of us.
“We have also been doing all we can to ensure that, in the light of the findings in the Horizon judgment, further disclosure is provided as appropriate in other cases where Post Office acted as prosecutor, not just those reviewed by the CCRC. The CCRC’s reasoning will be applied to those cases, which are being reviewed by an external team of criminal lawyers.
“We won’t be commenting on individual cases, because it would be inappropriate to prejudge the outcome of the important work that the CCRC is continuing to do or the Court of Appeal’s processes.”
Imagine if the Department for Work and Pensions mistakenly sent bills to large numbers of benefit claimants for tens of thousands of pounds they did not owe because of a faulty computer system; and then, when the distressed claimants could not afford to pay the phantom debts, the DWP took them to court, made them bankrupt and took away their homes and livelihoods.
In the Post Office’s case, it is an injustice that has been allowed to continue nearly two decades. And it has gone entirely unpunished, without fair compensation being paid.
But now that the Post Office Horizon scandal has made legal history, perhaps the civil service will take more seriously calls among MPs, peers and former sub-postmasters for a judge-led inquiry.
Until now, civil servants have regarded the scandal as a skin irritant that could be cured by applying a little soothing ointment.
The Criminal Cases Review Commission has shown it is taking the injustices seriously, as have Boris Johnson and the civil courts. Civil servants could follow reluctantly, as if they were waiting for instructions from the Post Office. Or they could lead.
Thank you David Orr for emailing a link to the BBC story.
Sub-postmaster convictions to be considered by Court of Appeal – Computer Weekly