From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘An affront to the conscience of the court’

April 26th

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?





From David Maughan Brown in York: How worried should we be?

Shamima Begum

March 1st

One of the advantages – or possible disadvantages, depending on which way one looks at it – of writing a blog over the course of what is nearly a year now is that one can follow the painfully slow course of events as they grind their way though our chronically underfunded judicial system.   My entry on July 17th was about the Court of Appeal’s decision that Shamima Begum, the London schoolgirl who had been successfully groomed by Isis to join them in Syria at the age of fifteen, should be allowed back into the UK to present her appeal against the removal of her British citizenship, and our unspeakable Home Secretary, Priti Patel’s, vindictive decision immediately to appeal that ruling in the Supreme Court.

On Friday the Supreme Court unanimously overturned the Court of Appeal’s ruling on the grounds that Ms Begum didn’t need to be in this country to be able to make a ‘fair and effective’ appeal.[1]  The Court of Appeal had recognised in approving the initial appeal that there might be security implications involved in Ms Begum’s returning to UK to present her case: ‘Ms Begum should be allowed to come to the United Kingdom to pursue her appeal albeit subject to such controls as the secretary of state deems appropriate.’  But the Supreme Court judgement asserted that there was ‘no basis for the Court of Appeal’s finding that the national security concerns about Begum could be addressed and managed by her being prosecuted or subjected to Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIM) on her return.’   Patel’s triumphalism in response to the Supreme Court’s verdict was wholly predictable:  ‘The Supreme Court has unanimously found in favour of the government’s decision, and reaffirmed the home secretary’s authority to make vital national security decisions.’

Before too many champagne corks are popped by the assorted Islamophobes and/or indiscriminate racists whose support Priti Patel must be assuming in her celebration of our newly independent sovereign state’s ability to sock it to a stateless 21-year old woman languishing in a Syrian detention camp, it might be a good idea to look a bit more closely at what the highest courts in the land have said.  The Appeal Court said that to protect the safety of the British public Shamima Begum should be subject to whatever controls Patel might deem necessary – which would obviously include imprisonment.  It is difficult to interpret Patel’s immediate decision to appeal that verdict as anything other than an admission that she has no appropriate controls.  The Supreme Court then backed this up by saying that there was no basis for the Appeal Court’s finding ‘that the national security concerns about Begum could be addressed and managed by her being prosecuted of subjected to TPIM on her return.’

So Patel’s triumphalist assertion of her success in winning her appeal is, in effect, a celebration of the fact, now endorsed by the highest courts in the land, that there is nothing the state can do to protect us as citizens of the UK against the threat of terrorism we would incur by allowing a 21-year old woman who may or may not be harbouring terroristic inclinations (we have no means of knowing) back into the country to present her appeal in person against being rendered stateless.   The arbitrary decision by our previous Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, to deprive Begum of her citizenship and render her stateless in the context of the refusal of Bangladesh to grant her citizenship was, of course, contrary to international law and this was implicitly recognised by the Supreme Court: ‘Although [Begum] cannot be rendered stateless, the loss of her British citizenship may nevertheless have a profound effect upon her life….’  But the Supreme Court decided, nevertheless, that ‘it would be irresponsible for the court to allow the appeal without any regard to the interests of national security….’

So even when we know exactly who it is who might be a potential terrorist, and even though we can make sure that they are securely guarded throughout their time in our  country if they are allowed back, either to be tried or to appeal against the illegal removal of their citizenship, our security services are so hopelessly useless that none of us would be safe.   Given that Lizzie Dearden, the Independent’s home affairs correspondent, reports that 40 percent of the 900 people who left the UK to join one or other side in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq are already back in the UK, we should presumably be very worried indeed about our safety.  But then it is just possible that we are, in fact, reasonably safe, and that Priti Patel just happens to have chosen the unlucky (or criminally culpable, who knows without a fair trial) Shamima Begum as the victim for her vicious grandstanding as Patel plays her Strong Woman role for the benefit of her gallery of deplorables.


From David Maughan Brown in York: Stateless in Syria

July 17th

Every day that passes provides fresh insight into the kind of government we, as members of the UK electorate, have landed ourselves with for the next four and a half years. Today’s response to the Court of Appeal’s decision that Shamima Begum should be allowed back into the UK to present her appeal against the removal of her British citizenship provides yet another window into the government’s contempt for human rights, and further evidence of just how little credence should be given to the pretence that the Huawei decision had anything whatever to do with China’s abysmal human rights record.   

A fifteen year-old schoolgirl, technically still a child, is successfully brainwashed by terrorist fanatics and sets off, accompanied by two friends of similar age, to join them in Syria.  Our much-bruited Prevent programme would appear not to have detected the fact that they were being radicalised; the police had interviewed all three of them when a friend of theirs left for Syria a few months earlier, but left it at that; our ‘not fit for purpose’ Home Office failed to stop them at the border or prevent them from leaving the country.   They join ISIS, Begum marries an ISIS fighter, and they lend their tacit (perhaps active, we don’t know) support to ISIS atrocities, and when ISIS is defeated Shamima Begum turns up in a refugee camp.   Our government, ignoring her right to a fair trial, promptly disowns her and removes her British citizenship on the specious grounds that in spite of being born, brought up and radicalised in UK, she has a technical right to Bangladeshi citizenship.  The Government of Bangladesh equally promptly, and understandably, says she is the UK’s responsibility and denies her that right, so she is rendered stateless.  This in spite of the fact that no less an expert on the deprivation of human rights than Theresa May is on record as saying that ‘it is illegal for any country to make its citizens stateless.’

The Appeal Court’s decision merely means that Shamima Begum should be allowed back to present her case, and does not imply that she should be allowed to stay in UK.   But that ruling, all too predictably, was enough to provoke an outpouring of bile from the frothing loons of the right-wing tabloid press.   The Sun, as so often, epitomises the fanaticism with its headline: ‘Shamima Begum ruling is monstrous – this vile fanatic has no place on our soil.’   Given that the right-wing media will always be pulling whichever of this puppet government’s strings Dominic Cummings isn’t pulling himself, the Home Office response was all too depressingly predictable:  it will appeal the Appeal Court’s ruling to the Supreme Court.   Whatever Shamima Begum has done wrong should be exposed in open trial in UK , and she should be sentenced accordingly.   The arbitrary life-sentence of statelessness in a Syrian refugee camp, which in the age of Covid-19 probably amounts to a death sentence, handed down by the Home Secretary is manifestly unjust, however convenient for the government and the Home Office it might be in helping them to avoid being held to account for allowing Begum to be radicalised and to leave the country in the first place.  

Shamima Begum was an all too obviously impressionable child when she was brain-washed into leaving the UK at the age of fifteen.   How far have we actually come in the fewer than seventy years since a fourteen year-old boy could be hanged as a ‘terrorist’ under the State of Emergency in Kenya, in the name of our of still reigning monarch, for the offence of being found in possession of a bullet?  And can we have any confidence whatever that The Sun wouldn’t still think that that was a good idea?