The Metropolitan Police have opened a criminal investigation into Fujitsu staff who gave evidence in trials of subpostmasters wrongly prosecuted and even imprisoned for financial crimes.
Subpostmasters, who run and own Post Office branches, were blamed and punished for accounting shortfalls that were actually computer errors. The Horizon scandal, named after the computer system used in Post Office branches, has become one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in UK history with the government, as owner of the Post Office, also implicated.
In January, the director of public prosecutions (DPP) referred concerns passed to him by High Court judge Peter Fraser about the accuracy of evidence given by Fujitsu staff in criminal trials of subpostmasters, to the Metropolitan Police.
In April, the police force said it was assessing evidence before deciding whether to investigate further. It has now confirmed that this has moved to a criminal investigation.
“The contents of the letter [from the DPP] have been assessed and a criminal investigation has been opened,” said the Metropolitan Police in a statement. This could lead to criminal prosecutions for crimes such as perjury.
A Computer Weekly investigation in 2009 revealed that subpostmasters were being blamed for unexplained financial losses, which they claimed were caused by errors made by the Horizon system, supplied by Fujitsu. The Post Office denied this, and many subpostmasters were subsequently prosecuted for theft and false accounting, with prison sentences, community service, criminal records and heavy fines among the injustices they suffered as a result (see timeline of Computer Weekly articles about the scandal below).
The Post Office always maintained that the Horizon system did not have faults and that subpostmasters were responsible for accounting shortfalls. This stance was backed up by Fujitsu. But after examining the evidence in detail, Judge Fraser described this as “amounting to the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the Earth is flat”.
It took a multimillion-pound High Court battle, in which staff at Fujitsu and the Post Office were questioned in detail, for subpostmastesr to prove there were serious problems with Horizon that were causing accounting shortfalls.
In 2018, a trial began with more than 500 former subpostmasters seeking justice. When the Post Office finally admitted defeat after spending over £100m defending the case, it agreed to pay £57.85m damages.
Before handing down his judgment at the second trial, Judge Fraser said he was referring information to the DPP because he had concerns over the accuracy of evidence given in court by Fujitsu in previous trials of subpostmasters.
“Based on the knowledge that I have gained both from conducting the trial and writing the Horizon issues judgment, I have very grave concerns regarding the veracity of evidence given by Fujitsu employees to other courts in previous proceedings about the known existence of bugs, errors and defects in the Horizon system,” said the judge.
“These previous proceedings include the High Court in at least one civil case brought by the Post Office against a subpostmaster and the Crown Court in a greater number of criminal cases, also brought by the Post Office against subpostmasters and subpostmistresses.”
In June this year, the Criminal Cases Review Commission sent 47 cases, in which subpostmasters were prosecuted as criminals based on Horizon data, to the Court of Appeal to be reviewed as potential miscarriages of justice. The Post Office said it will not contest 44 of the cases, which will be heard in the Court of appeal next week (18 November).
A Fujitsu spokesman said the IT supplier is fully cooperating with the investigation.