If former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells did not know about the Post Office’s practices when prosecuting subpostmasters, she was not doing her job, according to Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) chairperson Helen Pitcher.
In blasting the Post Office’s behaviour when wrongfully prosecuting subpostmasters for financial crimes, Pitcher told Computer Weekly: “If you were the CEO or director, you should have known – and if you didn’t, you were asleep at the wheel.”
On April 23, the Court of Appeal overturned the criminal convictions of 39 former subpostmasters who were convicted of crimes including theft and false accounting. The subpostmasters denied that they had committed the crimes and many suspected the computer system – known as Horizon – they used in Post Office branches was causing the errors.
Over a period of almost 15 years, some were sent to prison, many were heavily fined, large numbers were made bankrupt and families were ruined. It has been described as the biggest miscarriage of justice in UK legal history and has been linked to at least one suicide.
“It is an absolutely awful set of circumstances that has had far-reaching implications on people’s lives, their families’ lives and their mental well-being,” said Pitcher.
“I think it’s unconscionable that this could happen. The Post Office board should have asked themselves, ‘Why do we believe that 700-plus people have defrauded us? What is wrong with our systems, not just computer systems but recruitment, selection, induction and training, which is enabling this to happen?’”
Pitcher said that, having served on company boards herself, she would expect these questions to be asked in the boardroom. “There should have been a whole host of questions asked. I don’t have any evidence to say they were asked, but if they were and they did nothing, then they were asleep at the wheel.”
In 2009, a Computer Weekly investigation revealed the stories of seven former subpostmasters who had their lives devastated after being blamed for unexplained cash shortfalls (see box below for Computer Weekly’s coverage of the story since 2009).
Computer Weekly repeatedly asked the Post Office about the then alleged problems with Horizon, but it constantly said there were no problems.
Subpostmaster suspicions that the computer system they used from Fujitsu was causing the losses were proved right in the High Court in 2019, two decades after the system was rolled out. The CCRC, which began reviewing some subpostmaster cases in 2015, then sent the first batch of subpostmaster cases for appeal.
The Court of Appeal judgement in April 2021 said: “We conclude that the Post Office knew there were serious issues about the reliability of Horizon. It had a clear duty to investigate all reasonable lines of enquiry, to consider disclosure and to make disclosure to the appellants of anything which might reasonably be considered to undermine its case.
“Yet it does not appear that the Post Office adequately considered or made relevant disclosure of problems with or concerns about Horizon in any of the cases at any point during that period,” said the ruling.
Pitcher said: “It is the largest miscarriage of justice we have ever worked on. People were stymied in their attempts to get justice when they felt it was a miscarriage.”
Not only is it the CCRC’s biggest miscarriage of justice case, but it has also had a profound effect on public opinion. “For the first time, this has brought to the public conscience the devastating effects that a miscarriage justice can have,” added Pitcher.
And it could get bigger, with many more appeals against convictions in the coming months possible. The CCRC’s phones have been busy since the Court of Appeal’s decision to overturn 39 convictions. “It is not surprising that, since the judgments, people have been calling us,” said Pitcher.
She said it is possible that the remainder of the 736 cases, where subpostmasters were prosecuted based on Horizon evidence, could come forward. “If they do, this is going to be huge,” she added.
Pitcher explained that it doesn’t matter what people pleaded guilty to, or were prosecuted for, if the prosecution was based on evidence from the Horizon system, they could come forward. Any new appellants could expect their cases to be dealt with faster than the initial groups, she said.
According to Pitcher, the CCRC will be able to review cases quicker now that it knows what it is looking for, and the statutory body will review individual cases rather than a large group. “This means we can spread it across more of our people,” said Pitcher.
She warned that the unprecedented scale of the Horizon scandal introduces major challenges for an organisation such as the CCRC, adding that the CCRC will have to increase its resources quickly if all the appeals come in all at once. “Clearly, we will give them a lot of priority, but in normal circumstances we get up to 1,400 applications a year, and we can’t make people wait while we deal with Post Office cases,” she added.
Pitcher said the Court of Appeal judgment indicated that subpostmaster cases would be dealt with as quickly as possible because of “egregious failures”.
“Having made that kind of statement, I am sure – so far as it can – [the Court of Appeal] will work to hear cases really quite quickly,” said Pitcher, but she added that the court could get overwhelmed in the same way the CCRC has.