JUDGES have quashed the convictions of 39 former postmasters after the most widespread miscarriage of ruling class justice in the history of UK capitalism.
The 39 were convicted of stealing money, and some were imprisoned, after the Post Office installed the Horizon computer system in branches.
The system was flawed but postmasters and postmistresses were blamed for the failures and have spent years trying to clear their names.
Court of Appeal Judges indicted the Post Office, saying that it sought to reverse the burden of proof when prosecuting the postmasters.
Following their convictions which included theft, fraud and false accounting some former postmasters went to prison, were shunned by their communities and struggled to secure work.
Some lost their homes and even failed to get insurance owing to their convictions. Some have since died before they could be cleared.
They always insisted that the fault was in the computer system, which had been used to manage post office finances since 1999.
Among them was Janet Skinner, who ran a post office in Hull. She was imprisoned in 2007 for nine months over a shortfall of £59,000 – a case which she said ‘destroyed everything’.
Like others, she said she had no idea other sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses were being prosecuted and convicted.
She was taken away from her two children and imprisoned. After her release, she had a job offer taken away owing to her criminal conviction.
Lord Justice Holroyde 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.
However, the Post Office ‘consistently asserted that Horizon was robust and reliable’ and ‘effectively steamrolled over any sub-postmaster who sought to challenge its accuracy’, the judge added.
The Court of Appeal also allowed the appeals on the basis that their prosecutions were an affront to justice – a decision that allows for the possibility of further claims for compensation against the Post Office.
The judgement was met with cheers from former postmasters outside court.
Post Office chief executive Nick Read said: ‘I am in no doubt about the human cost of the Post Office’s past failures and the deep pain that has been caused to people affected.
‘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.’
The Horizon system, developed by the Japanese company Fujitsu, was first rolled out in 1999 to some post offices to be used for a variety of tasks including accounting and stocktaking.
From an early stage it appeared to have significant bugs which could cause the system to misreport, sometimes involving substantial sums of money.
Horizon-based evidence was used by the Post Office to successfully prosecute 736 people.
Helen Pitcher, the chairwoman of the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which asked the Court of Appeal to review the convictions, said: ‘This has been a serious miscarriage of justice which has had a devastating impact on these victims and their families.’
‘Every single one of these convictions has clearly had a profound and life-changing impact for those involved,’ she said in a statement.
‘The Post Office has rightly acknowledged the failures that led to these cases and conceded that the prosecutions were an abuse of process.’
- Former post office worker Janet Skinner – who served nine months over a shortfall of £59,000 at her post office – broke down in tears when she emerged from the court.
Noel Thomas who had spent three months in prison told News Line: ‘I have waited sixteen years for this.
‘I lost my home. I had to sell it cheaply.
‘The people who are responsible for this have walked away with a pocket full of money.’