Former subpostmasters who were wrongly convicted because of the Post Office’s defective Horizon accounting system have called for a public inquiry into the scandal which “destroyed” people’s lives.
On Friday, 39 former subpostmasters who were convicted and even jailed for theft, fraud and false accounting finally had their names cleared by the Court of Appeal.
Lord Justice Holroyde, sitting with Mr Justice Picken and Mrs Justice Farbey, 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.
The Court of Appeal also allowed 39 of the appeals on the grounds that the prosecutions were an affront to the public conscience.
Lord Justice Holroyde 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.”
However, three of the former subpostmasters – Wendy Cousins, Stanley Fell and Neelam Hussain – had their appeals dismissed by the court because “the reliability of Horizon data was not essential to the prosecution case”.
At a hearing last month, the court heard subpostmasters’ lives were “irreparably ruined” as they lost their jobs, homes and marriages after they were prosecuted by the Post Office which knew the Fujitsu-developed IT system had “faults and bugs from the earliest days of its operation”.
Lawyers representing the former subpostmasters said 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”.
Speaking outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London after the ruling, Harjinder Butoy, who was convicted of theft and jailed for three years and four months in 2008, described the Post Office as “a disgrace”.
He said those responsible for the scandal “need to be punished, seriously punished”, adding: “They’re just bullies, that’s all they are … somebody needs to really, really sort this out and charge them for this.”
Janet Skinner, who pleaded guilty to false accounting and was sentenced to nine months in prison in 2007, said she was “relieved” to have finally cleared her name.
Asked what her message was to those responsible for the prosecutions of dozens of subpostmasters, Ms Skinner said: “Watch your backs.”
Neil Hudgell, from Hudgell Solicitors, who represented 29 of the former subpostmasters, said his clients were “honest, hard-working people who served their communities but have had to live with the stigma of being branded criminals for many years, all the while knowing they have been innocent”.
He said in a statement: “The Post Office still appears to care little about the people whose lives it has destroyed.
“Ultimately, it has been found to have been an organisation that not only turned a blind eye to the failings in its hugely expensive IT system, but positively promoted a culture of cover-up and subterfuge in the pursuit of reputation and profit.
“They readily accepted that loss of life, liberty and sanity for many ordinary people as a price worth paying in that pursuit.”
Mr Hudgell said the “scandal” of the prosecution of subpostmasters “will only deepen should those involved not now finally face a fiercely-run investigation into how these prosecutions were conducted, what exactly was known as to the unreliability of the Horizon system when it was being used to ruin people’s lives, and whether people acted in a criminal manner”.
He called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to announce a “judge-led public inquiry”, with the power to summons witnesses, into the prosecutions of subpostmasters.
Mr Hudgell added: “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.
“If they are then found to have broken the law, they must then feel the full force of it too.”
Ed Miliband, Labour’s shadow business secretary, also called for “a proper inquiry with teeth to get the bottom of how this scandal can have happened and who was responsible – to deliver the justice those impacted need and deserve”.
The Criminal Cases Review Commission, which investigates potential miscarriages of justice, encouraged any other former Post Office employees to consider challenging their convictions following the ruling.
Post Office chairman Tim Parker said in a statement: “The Post Office is extremely sorry for the impact on the lives of these postmasters and their families that was caused by historical failures.
“Post Office stopped prosecutions soon after its separation from Royal Mail a decade ago and has throughout this appeals process supported the overturning of the vast majority of convictions.
“We 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.”
Nick Read, Post Office chief executive, said: “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.”