In spite of a range of well-known miscarriages of justice and cover-ups – the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six, the Maguire Seven, Hillsborough, to name a few – we tend to think of ourselves in UK as an example to the rest of the world of democracy, justice and general fair play. We have even had a Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities recently confirming for us that any institutional racism our country might ever have been guilty of has now miraculously evaporated. Where things go wrong they can be attributed to a few bad eggs, not to any intrinsic institutional failures. So it is with a combination of disbelief and impotent anger that one reads about the way sub-postmasters across the UK have been treated by the Post Office, the CPS, and our courts for the past 25 or so years in what has been described as ‘the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history’, a scandal brought back to mind by the Court of Appeal’s clearing of 39 sub-postmasters of theft, fraud and false-accounting last week. It is just a shame that three of the sub-postmasters had already died before their names could be cleared.
In 1999, the publicly owned Post Office rolled-out a new accounting system for its branches, ambitiously called Horizon, to every post office in the country. For the next thirteen years, until 2012, the Post Office busily brought an average of one prosecution every week against one of its sub-postmasters for theft, fraud or false accounting – all on the strength of alleged accounting shortfalls revealed by the new Horizon programme. A total of 736 sub-postmasters were prosecuted. They all denied the charges and said there was a problem with the Horizon software. In July 2013, a report commissioned by Second Sight, a firm of forensic investigators, established that there were, indeed, bugs in the Horizon system; another report, two years later in 2015, found no evidence of theft by postmasters, while whistle–blowers were reported by the Telegraph to have told the BBC that, exactly as the sub-postmasters were claiming, it was the software that was responsible for the missing cash. In December 2019 the Post Office agreed to pay 550 of the 736 sub-postmasters a total of £58 million as compensation for its wrongful prosecution. It took until December 2020 for six of the 736 to have their convictions quashed at the Court of Appeal when the Post Office admitted that the original verdicts had been unsafe.*
So the lives of 736 families over the course of twenty years were ruined: some of the sub-postmasters served time in gaol; some lost their life savings and were bankrupted; families broke apart as some were divorced; at least one committed suicide; many were abused by their former customers and had to move to live elsewhere; many had their health ruined; all had their reputations destroyed.
A BBC report by Susie Rack in December 2019 outlines the stories of three of the sub-postmasters affected.** Balvinder Singh Gill, from Oxford, found that his books simply would not balance and unaccountably showed ‘massive shortfalls’, with the result that he was accused of stealing £108,000 from the Post Office. He was, tellingly, informed that his was the only such case; he was threatened with prison if he didn’t pay it back; he ended up bankrupt and divorced; and he suffered a metal breakdown that led to his being sectioned. His mother was found guilty of stealing £57,000 from the same branch. The family ended up working for the minimum wage in kitchens and petrol stations. Wendy Buffrey, a former sub-postmistress from Cheltenham, is reported to have been advised to plead guilty to false accounting in 2010 to avoid jail, in spite of having always maintained her innocence, after a shortfall of £26,000 was identified in her accounts. She was given 150 hours of community service instead, while having to pay back the money she was alleged to have stolen. She also lost her business and her home. Rubbina Shaheen, from Shrewsbury, was accused of taking £43,000 from her branch – and ended up serving three months in jail – in spite of having identified at least 11 errors on the Horizon system to no avail. She and her husband were both on suicide watch for a time and ended up in failing health and had to live in a van when Rubbina was released from prison. The commissioners responsible for the recent report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities would no doubt claim that it was purely coincidental that the names of two out of the three families so disastrously affected by this scandal just happened to be names originating from the Indian sub-continent. I rather doubt that Harjinder Butoy, a former sub-postmaster from Nottingham who was convicted of theft and jailed for three years and four months in 2008, would agree.
As early as December 2010 when Seema Misra, another noteworthy name, was given a 15-month jail sentence for theft, in spite of being pregnant, the judge acknowledged that there was ‘no direct evidence’ of theft, and ‘nothing incriminating’ at her home, just a discrepancy between cash reserves and the Horizon system. In last week’s judgement on the 39, the Telegraph reports that ‘three senior judges said the company had “steamrolled” sub-postmasters in its pursuit of prosecutions, despite knowing there were serious questions over the reliability of Horizon.’ The judges had further declared that the ‘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.’
This begs a number of questions. If the prosecution of any of the Horizon cases is an ‘affront’, as it obviously is, why were all 42 convictions, not just 39, that had been brought before the judges not overturned? Why, for that matter, were all 736 convictions not overturned by default? Surely there should have been a presumption of innocence for all 736 after this finding? Why is it necessary for anyone to have to pay legal costs to have the remainder overturned? When Bavinder Gill was told his was the only case, was that just a barefaced lie or was the Post Office itself not able to join up the dots? Why were the police and the CPS also apparently unable to put two and two together and ask themselves what was going on when hundreds of sub-postmasters were being accused of theft and all were denying responsibility and pointing to the faulty software? How could not a single one of 736 convictions, all based on flawed accounting software, have been averted by a forensic analysis of the Horizon accounting package? Where had Fujitsu, the developers of the software gone missing to while their software led to 736 wrongful convictions? Why was the Post Office, a public entity, allowed to spend £320,000 suing a sub-postmaster, Lee Castleton from Bridlington, for £25,000 he was falsely accused of stealing, despite his having called the Post Office’s helpline nearly every day for three months?*** Who, if anyone, is going to be held responsible for the hundreds of millions of pounds this is going to end up costing taxpayers as futile efforts are belatedly made to compensate those victims who are still alive for the way their lives have been ruined by a deplorable phalanx of institutional failures?