Post Office scandal: Why were dozens of subpostmasters wrongly convicted of theft?

23 April 2021, 11:07 | Updated: 23 April 2021, 12:09

Dozens of former subpostmasters have had their convictions overturned
Dozens of former subpostmasters have had their convictions overturned. Picture: PA Images
Ewan Quayle

By Ewan Quayle

Dozens of former subpostmasters who were convicted of theft because of the Post Office's defective accounting system have had their names cleared.

Many subpostmasters' lives were "irreparably ruined" after they were wrongly prosecuted by the postage company but now 39 people have had the convictions overturned.

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 of Appeal was told.

But what went wrong with the Post Office's systems? How many of the convictions have been overturned? What has the company said?

Campaigners gathered outside the Court of Appeal following the ruling
Campaigners gathered outside the Court of Appeal following the ruling. Picture: LBC

What is the scandal about?

The Post Office prosecuted 736 subpostmasters between 2000 and 2014 after information from a recently installed accounting system made by Fujitsu - called Horizon - wrongly blamed them for a series of thefts, fraudulent activity and false accounting.

Many went to prison following convictions for false accounting and theft, many were financially ruined and have described being shunned by their communities. Some have since died.

In 2019, the Post Office ultimately settled a civil claim brought by more than 550 claimants for £57.75 million, without admitting liability,

But two decades since the first prosecution, in 2020, campaigners won a legal battle to go further and have their cases reconsidered after the courts accepted the accounting software was faulty.

What is the court ruling today about?

Following last year's acceptance of appeal applications, some of the former subpostmasters have grouped together to get their convictions quashed at the Court of Appeal.

Lawyers representing 42 of them told the court that evidence of serious defects in the Horizon system was "concealed from the courts, prosecutors and defence" in order to protect the Post Office "at all costs".

At the hearing in March, Sam Stein QC - representing five of the group - 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".

The Post Office conceded that 39 of the 42 appellants' appeals should go ahead unopposed but it did fight back against 35 of 39 cases on a second ground of appeal, which is that the prosecutions were "an affront to justice".

Announcing the court's ruling in the 39 people's favour, Lord Justice Holroyde said the Post Office "knew there were serious issues about the reliability of Horizon" and had a "clear duty to investigate" the system's defects.

But the Post Office "consistently asserted that Horizon was robust and reliable", and "effectively steamrolled over any subpostmaster who sought to challenge its accuracy", the judge added.

However, three of the former subpostmasters had their appeals dismissed by the court.

Lord Justice Holroyde said the Court of Appeal had concluded that, in those three cases, "the reliability of Horizon data was not essential to the prosecution case and that the convictions are safe".

What has the Post Office said?

Following the ruling, Post Office chief executive Nick Read said: "I am in no doubt about the human cost of the Post Office's past failures and the deep pain that has been caused to people affected.

"Many of those postmasters involved have been fighting for justice for a considerable length of time and sadly there are some who are not here to see the outcome today and whose families have taken forward appeals in their memory. I am very moved by their courage.

"The quashing of historical convictions is a vital milestone in fully and properly addressing the past as I work to put right these wrongs as swiftly as possible, and there must be compensation that reflects what has happened.

"In addition, since arriving at the Post Office 18 months ago, my focus has been on resetting the culture at the Post Office and forging a substantive partnership with our postmasters.

"We are determined that they must come first in everything we do because without them there is no Post Office.

"We must transform the Post Office so that it can continue to provide essential services in local communities across the UK."

The company has previously apologised for the scandal and back in October 2020 said it would not attempt to block the appeals.

The Post Office also confirmed it will not seek retrials of any of the appellants whose convictions have been overturned.