Prosecution of subpostmasters is 'affront to justice', court hears

Post Office’s ‘appalling and shameful’ prosecution of subpostmasters is ‘the longest and most extensive affront to the justice system in living memory’, Court of Appeal hears

  • Dozens of former subpostmasters say the Post Office knew the Horizon accounting system had ‘faults and bugs from the earliest days of its operation’ 
  • Evidence of serious defects was ‘concealed from the courts’, the court heard
  • Sam Stein QC said the failure to investigate and disclose serious problems with Horizon was ‘longest and most extensive affront to the justice system’

The Post Office’s ‘appalling’ prosecution of subpostmasters is ‘the longest and most extensive affront to the justice system in living memory’, the Court of Appeal has heard.

Dozens of former subpostmasters who were convicted of theft, fraud and false accounting say the Post Office knew the Horizon accounting system had ‘faults and bugs from the earliest days of its operation’.

But evidence of serious defects in the Fujitsu-developed IT system was ‘concealed from the courts, prosecutors and defence’ in order to protect the Post Office ‘at all costs’, the court has heard.

Lawyers representing 42 former subpostmasters who were convicted – and even jailed – have told the court many lives were ‘irreparably ruined’, as they lost jobs, homes and marriages as a result of their prosecution.

Sam Stein QC, representing five of those challenging their convictions, said the Post Office’s failure to investigate and disclose serious problems with Horizon was ‘the longest and most extensive affront to the justice system in living memory’. 

Some of the subpostmasters have since died, ‘having gone to their graves’ with convictions against their name, while ‘some took their own lives’, the court heard this week.

The Post Office’s ‘appalling’ prosecution of subpostmasters is ‘the longest and most extensive affront to the justice system in living memory’, the Court of Appeal has heard 

The Post Office has conceded 39 of the 42 appellants’ appeals should be allowed, on the basis that ‘they did not or could not have a fair trial’.

But it is contesting 35 of those 39 cases on a second ground of appeal, which is that the prosecutions were ‘an affront to justice’.

Four of the 42 appeals are not being opposed on either ground, while three are fully opposed by the Post Office, which has previously said it will not seek retrials of any of the appellants if their convictions are overturned.  

In written submissions, Mr Stein said the Post Office’s ‘assumption of fault’ in relation to subpostmasters and its ‘lack of disclosure within criminal cases perverted the legal process’.

He said many defendants ‘pleaded guilty to the allegations raised against them without exculpatory facts being known or explored’ as a result of the Post Office’s ‘culture of secrecy’ around Horizon.

Mr Stein added: ‘The fall from grace by the Post Office cannot be ignored.

‘It has gone from valued friend to devalued villain.

‘Those responsible within the Post Office had the duty to maintain not only the high standards of those responsible for any prosecution, but also to maintain the high faith and trust we had for the Post Office.

‘Instead, the Post Office failed in its simplest of duties – to act honestly and reliably.’

Dozens of former subpostmasters who were convicted of theft, fraud and false accounting say the Post Office knew the Horizon accounting system had ‘faults and bugs from the earliest days of its operation’ (file image) 

The ‘devastating’ toll of their prosecution and conviction on many subpostmasters was laid bare at the Royal Courts of Justice in London this week.

Mr Stein said the Post Office’s ‘wholesale failure’ to disclose the issues with Horizon left behind ‘the debris of prison sentences served, lives shattered and broken people’.

He added that the family of Peter Holmes, who pleaded guilty to false accounting in 2009, ‘have no doubt that his prosecution contributed to the downfall in his health and untimely death’ in 2015.

On Wednesday, Kate O’Raghallaigh – representing the majority of the subpostmasters – told the court that many of her clients had been made bankrupt or unable to find work after they were convicted.

She also said that ‘improper pressure was applied to these appellants to accept guilty pleas on the basis that they made no criticism of Horizon’.

Josephine Hamilton, who was given a one-year supervision order in 2008 after pleading guilty to false accounting, was ‘essentially threatened with a theft count in the event that she did not repay the supposed shortfall’, the court heard.

Ms O’Raghallaigh said this was ‘evidence of the prosecution process … being seen to be used as a means of enforcing repayment’.

She said some of the subpostmasters had worked for the Post Office for decades before they were prosecuted, with at least two having worked for it since the 1970s and one since the 1960s.

But, Ms O’Raghallaigh said, the Post Office refused to give them ‘the benefit of the doubt’ despite their long service.

Lisa Busch QC, representing three subpostmasters, said the court needed to keep in mind ‘an element of humanity’ when considering the appeals.

She said subpostmasters had ‘an important role in the community’ and were ‘by definition trusted to deal with not inconsiderable sums of money’.

Ms Busch said that, as well as the ‘impact on health and marriages’, there was also ‘the personal reputation of people that is at stake’.

She added that the prosecution of subpostmasters by the Post Office, which knew ‘perfectly well that they have done nothing wrong’, was ‘utterly reprehensible’.

On Tuesday afternoon, a barrister representing Dawn O’Connell, who was given a one-year suspended sentence after pleading guilty to false accounting, said her conviction had a dramatic impact on her health.

Ms O’Connell, who died aged 57 last September, ‘struggled desperately to deal with the stigma of her conviction’, Ben Gordon told the court.

Her appeal is being continued in her name by her son Matthew.

Mr Gordon said Ms O’Connell’s personality ‘changed irrevocably’ after her conviction, and ‘she became increasingly isolated, ultimately reclusive’ and ‘sank inexorably into alcoholism’.

He added that Ms O’Connell ‘made repeated attempts upon her own life’, before last year ‘her body succumbed to the damage caused by her sustained abuse of alcohol’.

Mr Gordon concluded that because of the ‘failures in the investigative and disclosure exercises, the prosecution against Ms O’Connell was rendered unconscionable, and that bringing it was an affront to the national conscience’.

Brian Altman QC, representing the Post Office, said in written submissions that whether a prosecution amounted to ‘an affront to the public conscience’ was ‘a case and fact-specific exercise’.

Mr Altman argued that there is ‘a real danger that adopting a global approach to these cases’ could lead to ‘unfairness and injustice’.

He added: ‘Reliance on Horizon was not of itself unfair and does not mean the (Post Office) should no longer have prosecuted.’

The hearing before Lord Justice Holroyde, Mr Justice Picken and Mrs Justice Farbey is expected to conclude on Thursday or Friday, and the court is expected to give its ruling in April.

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