The Post Office’s approach to prosecutions of subpostmasters suspected of theft and fraud contravened the established rules of justice, and “it defies common sense” to believe this behaviour was only limited to prosecutions based on the Horizon computer system, peer James Arbuthnot has said.
Arbuthnot, a Conservative peer and campaigner for justice for subpostmasters, said the revelations in the current public inquiry into the Post Office Horizon scandal have revealed “appalling behaviour” on the part of the Post Office in its use of its power to privately prosecute. He is calling for all Post Office prosecutions to be reviewed – even those not related to Horizon.
“No Post Office prosecution is safe unless there is the clearest of evidence that the person convicted has committed a crime,” he said. “All of the Post Office’s convictions need to be reviewed with the presumption of innocence at the forefront of those reviews.
“The Post Office’s approach to prosecutions, to disclosure and to investigations contravened the established rules of justice,” added Arbuthnot.
The ongoing public inquiry into the Post Office Horizon scandal, as well as appeal court hearings, have exposed that the Post Office held evidence back from suspects, failed to disclose information to court, invested huge sums of money to defeat innocent people, shredded documents to cover its tracks, and coerced people into pleading guilty. It also lied about Horizon’s robustness to subpostmasters, its own staff, journalists and whoever asked.
Lawyers even celebrated sending an innocent women to jail when it knew of evidence that would make her conviction difficult. In a 2012 email which was copied to several executives, former Post Office senior criminal lawyer Jarnail Singh wrote to colleagues after subpostmaster Seema Misra was convicted of theft and sent to prison while pregnant with her second child.
Singh wrote: “After a lengthy trial at Guildford Crown Court, [Seema Misra] was found guilty of theft. This case turned from a relatively straightforward general deficiency case to an unprecedented attack on the Horizon system. We were beset with unparallel [sic] request for disclosure requests by the defence. Through the hard work of everyone, counsel Warwick Tatford, investigation officer Jon Longman and through the considerable expertise of Gareth Jenkins of Fujitsu, we were able to destroy to the criminal standard of proof (beyond reasonable doubt) every single suggestion made by the defence…”
Misra had her wrongful conviction overturned in April 2021, after it was proved that the Post Office’s branch software contained errors that could cause phantom shortfalls.
A total of 736 subpostmasters were prosecuted by the Post Office for theft and fraud between 2000 and 2015, based on evidence from the software they use in branches, known as Horizon. 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, 86 subpostmasters have had criminal convictions overturned and many more are expected.
But Arbuthnot believes that such is the mendacity of the Post Office’s approach, questions must be raised about all prosecutions, and not just those which relied on evidence from Horizon.
Post Office CEO Tim Read recently told a parliamentary committee that the Post Office is contacting subpostmasters it believes were wrongfully prosecuted based on Horizon data informing them the organisation will not oppose appeals against their criminal convictions. Many believe the current grounds to appeal in the Horizon cases is too narrow and more prosecuted subpostmasters should have their cases reviewed. Arbuthnot said this does not go far enough.
Arbuthnot got involved in supporting subpostmasters, who at the time believed they had been wrongly blamed for accounting discrepancies, after being contacted by constituent Jo Hamilton. Hamilton ran a Post Office and shop in a Hampshire, and Arbuthnot was her MP at the time. “The Post prosecuted her for an offence for which they knew they had no evidence in order to get her to plead guilty to another offence,” he said.
Hamilton had her conviction overturned in the Court of Appeal in April 2021, along with 38 others in the landmark Hamilton and others vs Post Office case. The court concluded that the Post Office’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”. Hamilton was one of seven subpostmasters interviewed by Computer Weekly in 2009, the first investigation into the scandal.
“It defies common sense to believe that such appalling behaviour could be limited to those prosecutions that involved Horizon. Yet it is only the Horizon cases that the Post Office is not contesting, and it is only the uncontested cases that the Court of Appeal is overturning – which suggests that the Court of Appeal and the CCRC have not been keeping a close eye on quite how disgraceful the Post Office’s behaviour has consistently been.”
Information deliberately held back
Recent revelations in the Post Office Horizon scandal inquiry include evidence that the Post Office security department deliberately held back information on potential evidence that could support the cases of subpostmasters being investigated for alleged financial crimes.
Barrister Paul Marshall, who represented former subpostmasters that had their convictions overturned, said that for 20 years, the Post Office had been able to play the court system and “had invariably succeeded in bamboozling both judges and juries”.
“This fact is yet to receive the urgent and serious attention that it merits,” he said. “As I have previously observed, were the court system an airline, no one would fly it, such is its unreliability and propensity to repeatedly cause serious harm.”
Marshall said he agrees with Arbuthnot’s view that all Post Office convictions (and civil judgments) require to be reviewed. “I believe this will ultimately be an inescapable conclusion,” he said. “This is partly because the Post Office and its lawyers were not only engaged in what’s called ‘second-category abuse’ of the process of the court (conduct liable to subvert the court system and public confidence in it), they were actively engaged in subverting the rule of law in England and Wales over a long period.”
In 2009, a Computer Weekly investigation first revealed that subpostmasters were being blamed for unexplained accounting shortfalls, which they believed to be caused by software errors.