Former subpostmasters begin fight to clear names at Court of Appeal

Sam Tobin, PA
·3-min read

Dozens of former subpostmasters who say they were wrongly convicted of theft, fraud and false accounting because of the Post Office’s defective Horizon IT system are battling to clear their names at the Court of Appeal.

The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) referred the cases of 42 former subpostmasters to the Court of Appeal last year, following a landmark civil case against the Post Office.

A High Court judge found the Fujitsu-developed Horizon accounting system contained “bugs, errors and defects” and that there was a “material risk” shortfalls in branch accounts were caused by the system.

The Post Office settled the civil claim brought by more than 550 claimants for £57.75 million, without admitting liability, in December 2019.

Mr Justice Fraser, who formally approved the settlement, also referred the case to the director of public prosecutions over “very grave concerns regarding veracity of evidence given by Fujitsu employees to other courts in previous proceedings”.

Post Office court case
Former subpostmasters Janet Skinner (left) and Tracy Felstead (Jonathan Brady/PA)

As a result of the High Court’s findings, the CCRC considers there is “a real possibility” that the 42 subpostmasters’ convictions are unsafe, and their appeals began at the Royal Courts of Justice in London on Monday.

Opening the appellants’ case on Monday, Tim Moloney QC said: “The appellants before this court were prosecuted by Post Office Limited between 2000 and 2013.”

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

Mr Moloney added that the Post Office has accepted that “the absence of disclosure prevented the proceedings from being fair”.

He said many of those 39 appellants had “pleaded guilty in the face of the difficulties that they faced in defending themselves, being deprived of any meaningful way of defending themselves”.

Mr Moloney told the court: “All had the shame and humiliation of arrest and prosecution.

“All experienced the enormous psychological toll associated with that process.”

He added that many “received a custodial sentence – many immediately went to prison”.

Mr Moloney continued: “Some saw their marriages break up, others suffered bankruptcy and some are dead, having gone to their graves with their previous convictions still extant.”

He said “similar damage” was caused to a number of other subpostmasters, who he said were “blameless individuals”, whose cases are not before the court this week.

Mr Moloney said this “extensive damage” was “caused by unfair recovery of alleged debt and unfair trials stemming from the defective software and an abject failure on the part of the respondents to effectively assess, let alone effectively address, the defects in that software”.

He also said that there were “concerns” about the Horizon system “from the very outset”.

Mr Moloney argued that “the very highest levels of management and governance in the Post Office were on notice of the real potential for Horizon to malfunction and misfire”.

But, he added, the Post Office “chose to disbelieve the subpostmasters … it chose to ignore the distress that was being suffered by those subpostmasters”.

The Post Office is opposing 35 of those 39 cases on a second ground of appeal, which is that the reliability of Horizon data was “essential to (their) prosecution and conviction” and their convictions were therefore “an affront to the public conscience”.

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.

The hearing before Lord Justice Holroyde, Mr Justice Picken and Mrs Justice Farbey is expected to conclude on Thursday or Friday, and it is expected that they will give their ruling at a later date.