Post Office scandal: Dozens of subpostmaster convictions overturned in landmark ruling

23 April 2021, 10:51 | Updated: 30 April 2021, 11:15

By James Gooderson

By Joe Cook

Dozens of former subpostmasters who were convicted of theft, fraud and false accounting because of the Post Office's defective Horizon IT system have finally had their names cleared.

The Court of Appeal overturned the convictions of 39 subpostmasters on the basis that they relied on data from the faulty Horizon system and therefore were unsafe.

But, appeals from three other cases failed as data from Horizon was not "essential to the prosecution case".

The 42 former subpostmasters have been fighting for many years for their convictions to be overturned, which came between 2003 and 2013.

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".

Explained: Why were dozens of subpostmasters wrongly convicted of theft?

In Friday's ruling, Lord Justice Holroyde, sitting with Mr Justice Picken and Mrs Justice Farbey, said: "Post Office Limited'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."

The Post Office "knew there were serious issues about the reliability of Horizon" and had a "clear duty to investigate" the system's defects, Lord Justice Holroyde added.

Instead they "consistently asserted that Horizon was robust and reliable", and "effectively steamrolled over any subpostmaster who sought to challenge its accuracy", he continued.

The judgement was met by cheers and tears outside the court as families embraced each other.

The subpostmasters have waited years for their names to be cleared.
The subpostmasters have waited years for their names to be cleared. Picture: PA
Former post office worker Seema Misra, who was jailed for a conviction of theft in 2010, celebrates with her husband Davinder after the decision.
Former post office worker Seema Misra, who was jailed for a conviction of theft in 2010, celebrates with her husband Davinder after the decision. Picture: PA

The prime minister said it was clear an "appalling justice has been done" after 39 subpostmasters were wrongly convicted because of the Post Office's defective Horizon accounting system.

Boris Johnson said after the ruling: "I know the distress many subpostmasters and their families have felt for a very long time now through the Horizon scandal and I'm pleased that we've got the right judgment.

"Our thoughts are very much with the victims and we'll have to make sure that people get properly looked after because it's clear that an appalling justice has been done."

He said he was "really glad the judgment has come, in I think, the right way" and added: "I hope that that will now be some relief for those families and for those people who, I think, have been unfairly penalised and suffered in an appalling miscarriage and we've got to make sure we look after them."

There were tears outside the Royal Courts of Justice after the judgement was read out.
There were tears outside the Royal Courts of Justice after the judgement was read out. Picture: PA
Former post office worker Harjinder Butoy (left) hugs his father outside the Royal Courts of Justice, London, after having his conviction overturned by the Court of Appeal.
Former post office worker Harjinder Butoy (left) hugs his father outside the Royal Courts of Justice, London, after having his conviction overturned by the Court of Appeal. Picture: PA

A total of 736 subpostmasters were prosecuted 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.

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.

Former post office worker Tom Hedges (centre) pops a bottle champagne in celebration after his conviction was overturned.
Former post office worker Tom Hedges (centre) pops a bottle champagne in celebration after his conviction was overturned. Picture: PA

Journalist Nick Wallis, who has investigated the Post Office scandal for years told LBC people were being "prosecuted on an industrial scale".

The Horizon IT system "didn't work, it was fundamentally unfit for purpose," he added. "It could not add up its own sums and in some cases created accounting discrepancies which subpostmasters were held accountable for."

Mr Wallis continued: "[The Post Office] was able to use its own investigation and prosecution units to bypass the CPS and the police force to prosecute its own employees to the tune of one a week for 14 years. There were 736 successful convictions just using Horizon IT evidence."

Due to its long legacy, the Post Office has a "proximity to state power that is almost unparalleled," the investigative journalist explained.

Former post office worker Noel Thomas, who was convicted of false accounting in 2006, celebrates with his daughter Sian outside the Royal Courts of Justice.
Former post office worker Noel Thomas, who was convicted of false accounting in 2006, celebrates with his daughter Sian outside the Royal Courts of Justice. Picture: PA

Post Office 'extremely sorry'

Following Friday's 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."

Chairman Tim Parker added they are "extremely sorry" and "are contacting other postmasters and Post Office workers with criminal convictions from past private Post Office prosecutions that may be affected, to assist them to appeal should they wish".

Calls for 'urgent public inquiry'

Despite the apologies from the Post Office, lawyers for the subpostmasters have called for the Prime Minister Boris Johnson to "convene a judge-led public inquiry", describing it as "a matter of urgency".

"The people we represent have seen the Post Office give excuse after excuse for what has happened almost completely unchallenged, even to this day," Neil Hudgell, who represented 29 of the former subpostmasters, said.

"The time has come now for people at the Post Office who were involved in any way relating to these unsafe convictions to feel the uncomfortable breath of the law on their necks as our clients did."

Mr Hudgell accused the Post Office of seeking "to attribute failings to incompetence and not bad faith, and to engage in legal gymnastics to seek to persuade the court away from finding a clear systemic abuse of process of the criminal law".

Labour have also called for a full "proper inquiry" and accused the government of inaction, saying their current inquiry "risks being a whitewash".

There have been protests against the convictions for over a decade.
There have been protests against the convictions for over a decade. Picture: PA

'I did nothing wrong'

Grandmother Jo Hamilton, 63, was one of the subpostmasters whose name was cleared by the Court of Appeal.

Ms Hamilton, who was given a 12-month supervision order after being accused of stealing £36,000, said: "I was 45 when this started. It's taken up nearly a third of my life. You think it's never going to end.

"But I did nothing wrong. I told them about the problem but they said I was the only one."

Former subpostmaster Jo Hamilton, 63, was given a 12-month supervision order after being wrongly accused of stealing £36,000.
Former subpostmaster Jo Hamilton, 63, was given a 12-month supervision order after being wrongly accused of stealing £36,000. Picture: PA

Julian Wilson, who ran a post office in Astwood Bank, Worcestershire, was one of three subpostmasters who sadly died before their name was cleared.

His widow Karen Wilson, 66, said: "He had cancer. He died in 2016. He was only 67. His health deteriorated after he was suspended in 2008. I think the stress contributed. He may have still got cancer but I think it contributed."

Karen Wilson, widow of postmaster Julian Wilson, who died in 2016, holds a photograph of her husband after his conviction was overturned.
Karen Wilson, widow of postmaster Julian Wilson, who died in 2016, holds a photograph of her husband after his conviction was overturned. Picture: PA

Ms Wilson added: "I promised him I would kept on fighting. And today those judges said he was right. I'm not brave but this was such a massive wrong. For 13 years I have lived and breathed it. We almost lost everything."

Mr Wilson's daughter, Emma Jones, 47, of Alton, Hampshire, added: "This is a bittersweet day for us. Very unjust, very unfair."

The sub-postmasters who have had their names cleared are: Josephine Hamilton, Hughie Thomas, Allison Henderson, Alison Hall, Gail Ward, Julian Wilson (deceased), Jacqueline McDonald, Tracy Felstead, Janet Skinner, Scott Darlington, Seema Misra, Della Robinson, Khayyam Ishaq, David Hedges, Peter Holmes (deceased), Rubina Shaheen, Damien Owen, Mohammed Rasul, Wendy Buffrey, Kashmir Gill, Barry Capon, Vijay Parekh, Lynette Hutchings, Dawn O’Connell (deceased), Carl Page, Lisa Brennan, William Graham, Siobhan Sayer, Tim Burgess, Pauline Thomson, Nicholas Clark, Margery Williams, Tahir Mahmood, Ian Warren, David Yates, Harjinder Butoy, Gillian Howard, David Blakey and Pamela Lock.

This article is being updated.