Government advised to overturn all Post Office scandal convictions

The government has been advised to overturn all the convictions of the hundreds of subpostmasters wrongly accused in the Post Office scandal.

In a letter to Alex Chalk, the secretary of state for justice, the Horizon Compensation Advisory Board said that revelations from the statutory inquiry into the scandal have shown all the convictions are “unsafe”.

The board is an independent group of Parliamentarians and academics, set up to advise the government on issues surrounding compensation payments to victims as a result of the 2019 High Court case that found bugs in the Horizon IT system were responsible for accounting irregularities blamed on subpostmasters.

In the letter, sent by chair Christopher Hodges, emeritus professor of justice systems at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies at the University of Oxford, the board highlighted the “egregious systemic Post Office behaviour in interviews and pursuing prosecutions” that has been demonstrated during the public inquiry hearings.

“For these reasons, we believe the only viable approach is to overturn all 900+ Post Office-driven convictions from the Horizon period,” said the letter.

“A small minority of these people were doubtless genuinely guilty of something. However, we believe it would be worth acquitting a few guilty people (who have already been punished) in order to deliver justice to the majority – which would not otherwise happen.”

The inquiry has heard that the Post Office withheld vital information from court cases prosecuting subpostmasters – including evidence of Horizon flaws that could have caused accounting irregularities.

But the hearings have also demonstrated that innocent people were found guilty not only because of the IT system, but also due to Post Office employees and lawyers failing to follow prosecutorial guidelines in a determined effort to win cases or force subpostmasters to plead guilty to crimes they had not committed.

In a hearing this week, for example, former Post Office head of criminal law Rob Wilson admitted that executives at the highest levels in the Post Office were determined to protect the reputation of the Horizon system amid claims that it was seriously flawed, rather than establishing all the evidence to determine innocence or guilt. 

The advisory board cited “structural, cultural and behavioural problems around prosecutions conducted by the Post Office in the pursuit of the business’s own interests”.

It added: “The advisory board considers that there is considerable and mounting evidence that the behaviour of Post Office Limited in investigating and prosecuting many cases, was oppressive, egregious and constitutes a cogent ground for overturning convictions in its own right.”

Speaking to Computer Weekly in July this year, board member and long-time campaigner for the scandal victims, Lord James Arbuthnot, said the Post Office had “contravened the established rules of justice”.

“All of the Post Office’s convictions need to be reviewed with the presumption of innocence at the forefront of those reviews,” he said at the time.

A total of 736 subpostmasters were prosecuted by the Post Office for theft and fraud between 2000 and 2015, based on evidence from the Horizon accounting software they use in branches. But since 555 subpostmasters successfully sued the Post Office in the High Court for wrongfully blaming and punishing them for unexplained shortages which ruined their lives, the fact that the Horizon system was error-prone is accepted. As a result, more than 90 subpostmasters so far have had criminal convictions overturned and many more are expected.

However, the current process involves reviewing each individual case before a victim can be formally exonerated – and then they face a complex process for working out what compensation is due. The government has offered a blanket amount of £600,000 to those whose convictions are overturned, but lawyers say they could be due far more.

The advisory board said the slow pace of progress in clearing people’s names is a further reason for declaring all convictions to be unsafe.

“The advisory board considers that there is an urgent need to apply a speedy, holistic resolution that overturns all Post Office convictions,” it said.

“The case for a systemic, and hence swift, solution is strong, if not overwhelming. Given the evidence that the behaviours of Post Office Limited in investigating and prosecuting people have been so egregious, and constitute an affront to maintaining trust in the ability of a civilised state to uphold justice, the balance of considerations in favour of implementing a systemic solution is clear.

“In this case, that balance clearly favours overturning convictions of the innocent as against the risk that some guilty might go free (they have been punished already).”

Computer Weekly first exposed the scandal in 2009, with the stories of seven subpostmasters – our full coverage of the scandal since that time is shown in the timeline below.

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