Saturday, 10 August 2019

What's this all about?

A lot of people ask me what this story is all about. Your 400 word answer follows:

Over many years Subpostmasters (the people who run local post office branches) have been held legally responsible for the accounts presented to them by the Post Office's branch IT system, Horizon.

However, Subpostmasters are not in control of that system. It is operated by the Post Office.

Subpostmasters are unable to dispute the accounts presented to them and are held contractually liable by the Post Office for any discrepancies. Until High Court judgment in March 2019, if Horizon says you should have £80,000 worth of cash and stock in your branch and you only have £50,000, the Post Office considered you owed them £30,000.

The Post Office is not contractually obliged to investigate the cause of a Horizon discrepancy. Many Subpostmasters are certain computer glitches or other uninvestigated causes outside their control are behind discrepancies appearing in their accounts.

Postmasters who refuse to sign off their accounts are told they are not allowed to move from one branch trading period to the next. The should either agree to make any discrepancies good, or shut their branches, putting them in breach of contract.

In the past, Subpostmasters who refused to make good discrepancies were sacked, losing everything they'd invested in their branches.

Potential miscarriages of justice

Some Subpostmasters, mystified by continual or large scale losses and scared of being sacked and losing their businesses, signed off accounts they knew were not an accurate reflection of their stock and cash. They say they did this to avoid being held liable for discrepancies which were out of their control, which they could not afford to make good, and to keep trading. The Post Office called this false accounting.

Subpostmasters unwilling or unable to make good large discrepancies were sometimes prosecuted (by the Post Office's in-house prosecution team) for theft, false accounting and/or fraud. This was done on IT evidence alone, without proof of criminal intent. Despite this, some Subpostmasters were successfully persuaded by their own solicitors to plead guilty to false accounting, on being told the Post Office would drop theft charges.

Once the Post Office had a criminal conviction, it would attempt to secure a Proceeds of Crime Act Order against convicted Subpostmasters, allowing it to seize their assets and bankrupt them.

The upshot is what has been described as "likely... one of the most widespread miscarriages in the UK this century" and "a national scandal".  The Criminal Cases Review Commission is investigating 32 Post Office prosecutions. There is also an ongoing High Court class action (covered by this blog), which the 550+ claimant Subpostmasters are (so far) winning.

For more, please have a look at the "Start here" page, which divides the story up into categories and includes links to pieces I have written on aspects of each category.

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