Friday, 14 May 2021

Two more convictions quashed - total now 47

Neil Hudgell, Jo Hamilton, Tim Moloney QC, Tara Adedayo, Parmod Kalia, Amit Bhanot, Kathleen Donnelly and Ognjen Miletic

This morning Teju (Tara) Adedayo and Parmod Kalia had their convictions quashed at Southwark Crown Court. They were not part of the first six Postmasters to clear their names on 11 December last year because the Criminal Cases Review Commission initially decided it was not minded to refer their cases back to the courts. 

This seemed to hinge on the fact that Tara and Parmod offered confessions to go with their guilty pleas. Both Tara and Parmod have always said these confession were procured under duress in order to mitigate their sentences.

Parmod said he offered his confession on the advice of the National Federation of Subpostmasters (the union supposed to protect him).

Thanks to the work of their solicitors, Hudgells, the CCRC was set straight on the circumstances around their confessions, and their cases were belatedly dealt with today.

The hearing was short. The Post Office told the judge:

"In its judgment, handed down on 23 April 2021, the Court of Appeal Criminal Division distinguished between ‘Horizon cases’ which, due to the Post Office's failures of investigation and disclosure at the time of the original proceedings, were an abuse of process under both categories of abuse... The Court defined an ‘Horizon case’ as one in which the reliability of Horizon was essential to the prosecution of the appellant, typically where there was no other evidence of the shortfall other than what Horizon showed."

Their barrister added:

"applying the test in Hamilton & Others v Post Office [the Court of Appeal case which concluded on 23 April] to the circumstances of the case, in particular the full confessions made by each appellant in the original proceedings, the Post Office considers that the reliability of Horizon data was not essential to the original prosecution and conviction of either appellant. Neither does the Post Office accept that their confessions were made as a consequence of anything said or done that was likely, in the circumstances existing at the time, to render them unreliable."

Nonetheless:

"having considered the High Court judgments, the CCRC’s reasons for referring the case, the judgment in Hamilton & Others v Post Office and the papers available in each individual’s case, POL considered that the Full Code Test in the Code for Crown Prosecutors was not met."

The Post Office concluded "a prosecution is not required in the public interest" and it "therefore intends to offer no evidence in relation to each of the appellants."

Tim Moloney, Parmod and Tara's barrister, stood up and said that neither of his clients accepted the Post Office's characterisation of their cases, but as it was wholly "immaterial" to proceedings, he was not going to make any further comment.

Without further ado, the judge said she adopted the findings of the Court of Appeal (that their prosecutions were an affront to the public conscience) and:

"these appellants join those whose appeals have not been contested, their sentences have been served and we hope they can put this behind them and get on with their lives without the shadow of their convictions hanging over therm. We therefore allow the appeals."

The hearing finished, and after the judges had left court the remainder of those in the room (a good number of journalists, lawyers, family and well-wishers) stayed standing as Tara and Parmod slowly walked out in silence, both with tears in their eyes. 

Seething

By the time I finished live-tweeting and got out into the corridor Parmod was standing on his own, with his back to the wall, visibly seething. I could guess why. "They had to bring it up again, didn't they?" he said. I let him gather his thoughts and moved outside to join the waiting cameras.

Tara and Parmod emerged from the court building together. Both were emotional. Tara said:

"We thank God for everything. I just thank God for today..." She seemed lost for words, but then surprised her solicitor Neil Hudgell by turning round to give him a hug, repeating "This is the guy! This is the guy!"

Mr Hudgell said: "It's been an incredible journey. It's had its real downs even very recently and we're delighted."

"It's been so long coming" said Parmod. "I'm so pleased. Thank you to my legal team who've represented me to get me to this position. I've just hidden myself and surfaced today as a result of today's decision. It has been horrendous, but I am very pleased it's come to this now today that I didn't do what they said I did do."

I asked Mr Hudgell what he made of the Post Office's argument (as outlined above) in court. He replied:

"I think today is just about exoneration. I don't think we're bothered about legal argument. We're just bothered about two fabulous people who have been so wronged for so long, having the weight lifted from their shoulders. Legal niceties are for another day."

Tara's story

Tara Adedayo was a Subpostmaster in Kent. She experienced inexplicable discrepancies on her Post Office Horizon computer system. After handing over £50,000 to the Post Office to "make good" the discrepancy, the Post Office prosecuted her. She was given a 50-week sentence at Maidstone Crown Court, suspended for two years, and ordered to complete 200 hours community service.

On many occasions, she considered taking her own life, saying in a written statement: "My family have been dragged to hell and back."

Parmod (l) and Teju outside Southwark Crown Court after their convictions were quashed

Parmod's story

Parmod Kalia ran a Post Office in Orpington, in the London Borough of Bromley. In 2001 had inexplicable discrepancies on the new Horizon system and was accused by Post Office investigators of stealing £22,000. He was advised by his National Federation of Subpostmasters representative to ‘put things right’ to avoid court proceedings.

He borrowed £22,000 from his mother to ‘repay’ the missing amount within days, yet despite this, court proceedings were still started against him and he was encouraged to ‘make up a story’ as to where the money had gone.

Despite pleading guilty, Parmod was sentenced to six months in prison at Croydon Crown Court. 

Parmod's conviction and sentence is something he has kept secret for many years, though he did allow me to tell his story under a different name. We agreed we'd call him "Parminder" in this piece I wrote after we met at the High Court, and he has subsequently spoken to Vanessa Feltz on a couple of occasions as "Peter" for BBC London. Parmod told reporters today that the only reason he had any idea he wasn't the only person who had suffered these losses was when he watched Panorama on the BBC back in 2015.

In a statement he added:

“The only reason I ever said I had taken the money is because I was told that was my only option to avoid jail. I was told I needed to repay the money and make up a story as to where the £22,000 had gone,” he said.

I was in a complete panic and so I made up a story. It was stupid, but I was under such intense pressure and I was desperate to avoid prison. Even then I was sent to jail. The whole experience was just appalling.

It was something that brought great shame to my family, so much so that I did all I could to keep it from my relatives. At the time of my court appearance I arranged for my mother to visit family in India for a couple of months, so she was never aware that I was sent to prison. I think that would have killed her. She died in 2019 without ever knowing.

Only my wife and four children knew I spent time in prison, and only now am I prepared to tell others in my family, as I no longer have a conviction by my name.

My reputation in the community was destroyed. At the time I was a treasurer also for a local charity, and that was a position I lost. My life fell apart, causing many issues in my marriage and undue pressure and stress on my children and my wife. 

This has caused me emotional, mental and physical stress whereby I have attempted suicide on three occasions, and been scarred with physical disabilities, caused by all the stress I have had to endure.

I wrote a letter addressed to Paula Vennels, who was chief executive of the Post Office at the time of all this, and she didn’t even bother to reply. I think that says it all.

I’ve always tried to retain the belief that I’d get there in the end but when the CCRC rejected my case last year it was difficult. Thankfully, through persistence and good legal support, that decision was successfully challenged, and when the first convictions were overturned in December it gave me real hope. 

I was then due to hear if the Post Office was opposing my appeal last month, but it was delayed at their request. When I finally got the call to say they were not going to contest my case at court today it did feel like the end of a very long, difficult journey. 

I will never understand why this happened to us and why we have had to fight so long.”

The Post Office said it is:
“extremely sorry for historical failures and the impact these have had on the lives of people affected.
 
We are taking determined action to fully address the past and have undertaken wholesale reforms to prevent such events ever happening again.”

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This blog is crowdfunded. I am also currently writing a book called The Great Post Office Scandal which will be published by Bath Publishing this autumn. If you would like to buy a pre-sale copy, I would be very grateful. For more information, please click here.

Friday, 7 May 2021

So who did it? - Peer calls for police investigation

Lord Arbuthnot outside the Royal Courts of Justice on 23 April 2021

Lord Arbuthnot, the former barrister, has called for a police investigation into the activities of former Post Office executives saying:

"It is high time the police began to take a serious look at whether the Post Office management have been perverting the course of justice."

Arbuthnot was reacting to the Post Office announcement that it was contacting more than 500 people it has successfully prosecuted since 1999 using Horizon evidence. The Post Office said:

“In addition to full co-operation with the CCRC’s review, Post Office has made strenuous efforts to identify individuals who were historically convicted and an extensive post-conviction disclosure exercise is taking place to identify and disclose all material which might affect the safety of those convictions.”

In response - Lord Arbuthnot, who has been helping Subpostmasters fight for justice for more than a decade, said:

“Am I alone in finding the Post Office’s use of the word “historical” rather nauseating?  They are trying, in their unsubtle way, to create the impression that this is all in the past and that their behaviour now is spotless.  But it wasn’t until November last year that we discovered, through their late disclosure of the Clarke advice, that they had known for many, many years that their entire prosecution process was riddled with deception, something they then tried to cover up with their shredding of documents.  It is all very well for the Post Office now to say that “Disclosure relevant to their cases will be provided” – but given their track record, who will believe them?

Then, in the Common Issues Trial [one of the trials in the Bates v Post Office High Court litigation], the Post Office continued to assert that the subpostmasters were dishonest, though they knew that it was their own systems that weren’t working.  The intervention of the CCRC establishes that the course of justice was perverted – so who did it?"

Paul Marshall, the barrister acting for Seema Misra, Tracy Felstead and Janet Skinner said:

"The Post Office knew from not later than 2013 that its systems were unreliable and that the Horizon system had the propensity to cause shortfalls not apparent to a Post Office branch terminal operator and that accordingly its evidence to the court in many cases was incomplete and misleading.  That being so, why did the Post Office adopt the policy of denial that it pursued until Fraser J called time in December 2019? Who devised that policy of denial and who implemented it?

Once those questions are addressed and truthfully answered by the Post Office, as eventually, one way or another they will be, it may be time to close this chapter, but not before. One gets the impression that the person for whom the Post Office feels regret and sorrow is itself, and that its stonewalling has so dismally and expensively failed.  That is no consolation to those who have died."

For more on this developing story, please click here.

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This blog is crowdfunded. I am also currently writing a book called The Great Post Office Scandal which will be published by Bath Publishing this autumn. If you would like to buy a pre-sale copy, I would be very grateful. For more information, please click here.

540 MORE Subpostmaster convictions could be unsafe

Pic: Hudgells Solicitors

The 45 Subpostmasters and Post Office workers who had their criminal convictions overturned two weeks ago today may only be the tip of the iceberg. Today the Post Office announced it is contacting 540 people who it prosecuted through the criminal courts to assist them with information which may lead to a successful appeal. A further 100 cases are still being reviewed. 

The Post Office successfully prosecuted 736 people between 2000 and 2014. This suggests there are now concerns the vast majority of these prosecutions, made using evidence from the Post Office's Horizon IT system, could be unsafe. A Post Office spokesperson said: 

“In addition to full co-operation with the CCRC’s review, Post Office has made strenuous efforts to identify individuals who were historically convicted and an extensive post-conviction disclosure exercise is taking place to identify and disclose all material which might affect the safety of those convictions.”

The Post Office's massive post-conviction disclosure exercise started almost immediately after the settlement of the Bates v Post Office group litigation, which ended in December 2019. It has, according to the Post Office, involved 60 barristers, 50 law firms, Fujitsu, Royal Mail, the Courts and the Criminal Cases Review Commission. It has cost, as you might expect, millions of pounds.

In 2013, a barrister working for a firm instructed by the Post Office wrote what has become known as the Clarke Advice, which suggested there may be serious problems with the Post Office's prosecutions of Subpostmasters. The Post Office secretly commissioned a review of its prosecutions between 2010 and 2013 and found 26 were potentially unsafe. It deliberately kept this information from MPs and campaigners, potentially denying hundreds of people important information about the safety of their convictions. The Post Office's Head of Security also ordered the shredding of documents relating to Horizon problems. The 45 convictions which have already been quashed were referred to the Court of Appeal by the Criminal Cases Review Commission which stated it was only able to do so because of the civil case fought by Subpostmasters between 2017 - 2019.

Today, Lord Arbuthnot, who has been helping the campaigners in the fight for justice for more than a decade, said:

“Am I alone in finding the Post Office’s use of the word “historical” rather nauseating?  They are trying, in their unsubtle way, to create the impression that this is all in the past and that their behaviour now is spotless.  But it wasn’t until November last year that we discovered, through their late disclosure of the Clarke advice, that they had known for many, many years that their entire prosecution process was riddled with deception, something they then tried to cover up with their shredding of documents.  It is all very well for the Post Office now to say that “Disclosure relevant to their cases will be provided” – but given their track record, who will believe them?

Then, in the Common Issues Trial [one of the trials in the High Court litigation], the Post Office continued to assert that the subpostmasters were dishonest, though they knew that it was their own systems that weren’t working.  The intervention of the CCRC establishes that the course of justice was perverted – so who did it? It is high time the police began to take a serious look at whether the Post Office management have been perverting the course of justice."

No accountability

As yet, the government still doesn't think anyone should be held responsible for the scandal. On 11 June last year in the House of Lords, Lord Browne of Ladyton said to the business minister:

"For more than a decade, while covering up the truth, the Post Office spent in excess of £100 million maintaining the convictions and the impoverishment of hundreds of innocent sub-postmasters. Not one director or senior executive has been held to account. What do the Government, who own the Post Office, plan to do about this shocking failure of corporate governance?"

Lord Callanan, for the government replied:

"The Horizon IT system was put in place in 1999, with the first issues being raised by sub-postmasters in the early 2000s. Mr Justice Fraser has considered what happened over this period and has set out his findings in considerable detail in the court case. Of course, the senior directors responsible at the time of the prosecutions against sub-postmasters are no longer at the Post Office. Any further proceedings against such individuals is a matter for the Crown Prosecution Service, and the courts and the justice system."

ie it was all a long time ago so we are not going to hold anyone to account.

The business ministry on 2 April last year said:

"Given the major programme of work the Post Office is implementing, the Government will not be taking further action at this time. The Horizon IT system was put in place in 1999, with the first issues being raised by postmasters in the early 2000s. Over an almost 20-year period decisions were made by many people, including in relation to the prosecution of postmasters. There is therefore no single person accountable for what has taken place."

ie too many people were responsible, so we're not going to do anything.

The Post Office is now urging anybody any person who was prosecuted by Post Office or Royal Mail Group after July 1999 and who believes the prosecution case relied on Horizon evidence, to email disclosure@postoffice.co.uk 

My advice would be to speak to a lawyer first.

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This blog is crowdfunded. I am also currently writing a book called The Great Post Office Scandal which will be published by Bath Publishing this autumn. If you would like to buy a pre-sale copy, I would be very grateful. For more information, please click here.

Saturday, 1 May 2021

The Great Post Office Scandal - buy it here!

My forthcoming book - The Great Post Office Scandal: the fight to expose a multimillion pound IT disaster which put innocent people in jail - is now available on pre-sale from Bath Publishing. It will soon be available via Amazon and Waterstones and your usual independent bookseller.

If you would like to buy a copy, please click here. It will be shipped to you by the end of October 2021.

This website - if you've never been here before - was paid for by crowdfunding. 

It is a document of nearly everything that has been happening in the Post Office Horizon story since 2018, when Alan Bates and his 554 fellow claimants took the Post Office to court and won. Please have a click around. 

And please do buy my book!

Friday, 30 April 2021

Major new ITV drama on the Post Office Horizon IT scandal

 ITV COMMISSIONS POST OFFICE SCANDAL DRAMA,PEOPLE vs. POST OFFICE, WRITTEN BY GWYNETH HUGHES AND PRODUCED BY ITV STUDIOS, PATRICK SPENCE, AND LITTLE GEM


One of the greatest miscarriages of justice in British legal history, affecting dozens of innocent sub-postmasters and postmistresses, wrongly accused of theft, fraud and false accounting due to a defective IT system, will be brought to the screen by Patrick Spence, ITV Studios and co-produced by Little Gem. 


The 4 x 60’ drama, entitled People vs. Post Office, will be written by acclaimed screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes (Honour, Vanity Fair, Dark Angel) and executive produced by Patrick Spence (Adult Material, Marvellous), ITV Studios, Gwyneth Hughes, and Natasha Bondy and Ben Gale (Surviving the Virus, This is our Family) on behalf of Little Gem.


Many of the wronged workers who were prosecuted, some of whom were imprisoned for crimes they never committed, are already working with the producers to document how their lives were irreparably ruined by the scandal. 


Commented Natasha Bondy, Little Gem’s Creative Director and Executive Producer, and Patrick Spence, ITV Studios: 


“Being trusted with telling this story is a huge honour for the whole production team.   We are going to ensure the biggest possible audience get to hear how much the subpostmasters suffered, how hard they had to fight for justice and how determined they are that the fight is not yet over.”


Following the landmark Court of Appeal decision to overturn their criminal convictions, dozens of former sub postmasters and postmistresses have been exonerated on all counts as they battled to finally clear their names. They fought for ten years finally proving their innocence and sealing a resounding victory, but all involved believe the fight is not over yet, not by a long way.

 

Commented Gwyneth Hughes:  


“I’ve been talking for a while now to some of the people whose lives were turned upside down by this appalling business. I find it just astonishing, and deeply troubling, that this could have happened in my country, and I confess it’s shaken my confidence in British justice. The sub postmasters at the heart of the fightback are such a lively, interesting and indomitable bunch. They never gave up, and I’m honoured to be telling their stories.”


Between 2000 and 2018, the Post Office held thousands of its own sub postmasters and postmistresses liable for financial discrepancies thrown up by Horizon, its hugely expensive but unreliable computerised accounting system.  


Despite warnings that the system was flawed, the Post Office relentlessly pursued the sub postmasters and postmistresses, telling many of them they were the only ones having problems with Horizon. 


Of those affected by the faulty IT system, 736 were prosecuted, hundreds more lost livelihoods, homes and life savings because they paid back money the Post Office claimed was missing. 


Several went to prison, some whilst pregnant or with young children and many were shunned by their communities. Some have since died before they could find any justice.   


The drama will narrate how in 2009, a group of sub postmasters from across the UK, decided enough was enough and formed the Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance. 


People vs. Post Office has been commissioned by ITV’s Head of Drama, Polly Hill, who will oversee production on behalf of the channel. 


Commented Polly Hill:


This is the story of how the sub postmasters fought back against seemingly insurmountable odds. Having followed their fight for justice and the landmark decision by the Court of Appeal, I’m delighted we can now tell their story.”


Filming of the drama will take place in early 2022 with transmission expected later that year. 


ITV Studios will be responsible for the international distribution of the drama. 

Wednesday, 28 April 2021

Page and Marshall in the clear

Flora Page with her legal team (posing like seasoned Eurovision entrants) outside court

One of the most extraordinary sideshows to the recent Court of Appeal proceedings came to a close yesterday with Lord Justice Fulford deciding that barristers Paul Marshall and Flora Page had no case to answer on the issue of contempt of court, which had been raised, but then not pursued, by the Post Office.

On 18 November last year, the Post Office barrister, Brian Altman QC, implicated both Page and Marshall in a possible contempt, due to the leaking of the now infamous Clarke Advice to a journalist. Flora Page 'fessed immediately, saying she had handed the document to her brother Lewis, a freelance hack. Ms Page apologised, referred herself to the Bar Standards Board and resigned her brief.

Mr Marshall, who was embroiled in a separate leaking of the Clarke Advice to the Metropolitan Police, walked soon after the Court of Appeal decided both he and Ms Page had a potential contempt case to answer. As he departed, Mr Marshall fired off a strongly-worded salvo

The pair had been representing Tracy Felstead, Seema Misra and Janet Skinner, and were early, at times lone proponents of asking the Court of Appeal to consider limb 2 of the CCRC's referral. 

Limb 2 argued that not only was the prosecution of several dozen Subpostmasters an abuse of process (through failure to properly investigate and/or disclose material) it was also an affront to the conscience of the court and therefore justice itself. 

Flora Page
As everyone now knows, the Court of Appeal decided, in the case of 39 appellants before it last Friday, the Post Office's prosecutions were an affront to the public conscience. This decision almost certainly led to the immediate departure from public life by former Post Office CEO, Paula Vennells. 

Reacting to the Court of Appeal's decision that she had no case to answer, Flora Page said: 

"I welcome today’s decision. Had I been given the opportunity, I would have given the same explanation and apology to the Post Office legal team as I gave to the Court: I provided the Clarke Advice to my brother, a responsible member of the press, with Paul’s agreement, because we expected it to be dealt with in court the following day, having appended it in full to our skeleton argument for that hearing. There was no question of Lewis or the Telegraph publishing anything from the document unless and until it was in the public domain. The Court ultimately found that I had been acting honourably.   
This was a diversion from the main issue. The fight for justice for up to 900 sub-postmasters wrongly convicted of theft, fraud and false accounting continues. It is vital that the Post Office is held to account for the devastation it has brought on so many people’s lives and livelihoods and does not do anything else to hinder any future investigations into what went so horribly wrong."

Shortly afterwards, Ms Page revealed that the Bar Standards Board "decided to close my self referral file in February. No further action."

Paul Marshall gave a lengthier, juicier, statement, laying into the Post Office's tactics:

"I remain troubled by the way that counsel for the Post Office raised the issue of contempt before the court of appeal on 18 November 2020 without giving reasonable notice to me of the intention to do so.

The Court of Appeal elicited acceptance that the provision of the Clarke Advice was an ‘error of judgment’ and that being done it was determined no further action was to be taken.

As is now clear the ‘Clarke Advice’ was pivotal in the Court of Appeal’s finding that for almost 15 years’ the Post Office was engaged in conduct that constituted an abuse of the process of the court and calculated to subvert the integrity of the criminal justice system or undermine public confidence in it.  Its disclosure resulted in the much later disclosure of the “shredding” Clarke advice.

Paul Marshall
Between 18 November 2020 and today, no one has identified to me a proposition of law that establishes (or supports) that disclosure of a document that casts serious doubt upon the safety of a convicted defendant’s conviction, which on highest authority it is a prosecutor’s duty to disclose when it comes to their attention even when all legal processes are exhausted, is disclosed subject to any restriction or inhibition upon use by them of such material. 

There is in my view a compelling public policy reason for there being no such inhibition or restriction - the public interest in identifying and correcting miscarriages of justice. Documents of this kind are different in kind to ordinary disclosure. 

The way in which this matter was first raised on 18 November 2020 had the effect that Flora Page and I felt unable to continue to represent our clients. That consequence was possibly an outcome not wholly unanticipated by the Post Office. One only needs to look back at the Bates litigation to see that the Post Office had a propensity to play ‘hardball’. Most obviously in its attempt to secure the recusal of the trial judge. But by the time I withdrew in December 2020 I had drafted a skeleton argument on ‘second category’ abuse of process, and reasons why the court should hear it, that my able successor Ms Lisa Busch QC was able to use on the hearing on 17 December 2020. 

The Post Office’s failure to disclose material in the Clarke Advice until 2020 was in violation of my clients’ rights under Article 6 of the ECHR which guarantees to them a trial, that extends to an appeal hearing, within a reasonable time. My three former clients collectively had to wait 44 years to have their convictions quashed. Material in the Clarke Advice ought to have been disclosed in 2013, specifically to Mrs Misra because it was at her trial in 2010 Mr Jenkins gave live oral evidence as an expert for the Post Office.

I am confident that, but for inquiries about circumstances in 2013, that I caused to be made by Aria Grace Law in November 2020 that elicited the Clarke Advice, it would not have
been disclosed by the Post Office in 2020. Without Flora Page’s and my efforts none of the 39 appeals would have been quashed on the basis of second category abuse of process. The importance of the Court of Appeal’s decision on second category abuse is that it carries the corollary that the appellant is wholly exonerated and ought never to have been prosecuted. 

Importantly, the finding also exposes the mendacity of the Post Office prosecution policy, contaminated as it was by its improper defence/protection of its Horizon system. That is a source of considerable satisfaction to me and also testimony to the intellectual capacity, moral courage and public-spirited contribution of Flora Page who was the only lawyer, other than our instructing solicitor Nick Gould at Aria Grace, who prior to my withdrawing from the case in December 2020 concurred with my analysis as later accepted by the Court of Appeal by its 23 April judgment."

I think he's a bit pissed off.

The appellants' success on limb 2 will have far-reaching implications - one suspects the CPS might take a closer interest in the activities of Post Office executives, and Professor Richard Moorhead, the legal world's well-regarded ethics guru, has already had a thing or two to say on the activities of the Post Office's internal and external lawyers throughout this scandal. 

The limb 2 success also rather strengthens the hands of now 45 Subpostmasters whose convictions have been quashed, and who will now be seeking some life-changing compensation as a result.

As an aside, when Mr Altman stood up on 18 November and told the court (out of what he said was his "duty") about the leaking of the Clarke Advice, casually mentioning it might be a criminal offence, a chill went down my spine. When I saw the court's reaction, I felt sick. I can only do this job if people give me documents, and journalists rely on good people attempting to do the right thing. 

Seema, Janet and Tracy

For just one brief moment, as I saw the government-owned Post Office colluding with the justice system to potentially rub out the careers and livelihoods of two well-meaning individuals, I got the tiniest flavour of what it must have been like to be a helpless Subpostmaster on their way to a criminal conviction and a ruined life, with not even the slightest chance of changing the outcome.

I am very glad, in this instance, good sense prevailed.

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I am currently running a crowdfunding campaign to ensure I can attend all relevant appeal court, high court and government inquiry hearings related to the Post Office Horizon IT scandal. Reward levels include access to the secret email, and a forthcoming book. Please click here for more information, and if you would like to support my work.

Monday, 26 April 2021

Vennells' career ends in ignominy

The Reverend Paula Vennells

Having quietly left the Cabinet Office, withdrawn from her role chairing an NHS Trust in March, and last year stopped advising the Church on its ethical investments, Paula Vennells has now stopped working as a priest and departed the board of Dunelm and Morrisons.

When she left the Cabinet Office, Vennells went out of her way that to say that her short, one year tenure was entirely her choice, stressing that other people had left the Cabinet Office at the same time.

Vennells made no statement about temporarily stepping down from the board of the Church's ethical investment group, although an insider confirmed it was due to the Horizon scandal, saying she had "taken a leave of absence as she engages with the BEIS Select Committee Review."

Shortly before she left Imperical College Healthcare NHS Trust, in an excruciating video meeting, Vennells deflected a question on her chairmanship to a fellow director who read a prepared statement saying:

"Following the Post Office legal ruling and settlement at the end of 2019, and subsequent developments. our board has reviewed the situation carefully and thoroughly. All of the information we have remains in line with what was understood by NHS Improvements at the time of Paula's appointment in April 2019. And the board has no additional insight into the complexities of the Post Office issues over the past 20 years and we are only able to draw on our own direct experience of Paula's conduct and contribution to this Trust, which has been entirely positive."

When she finally announced her departure, no reason was given - just:

“By the time I leave, I will have been in the position for two years. While I will be very sad to go, it is a personal decision at the right time."

It took the Daily Mail to confirm that, of course it was due to the Horizon scandal.

When an outraged campaigner wrote last year to Morrisons supermarket wondering why on earth she was still on the board, chairman Andrew Higginson produced a deeply self-satisfied response:

"I have learnt to take people as I find them" he opined, ".... It is both my own and my own colleagues' assessment that Paula is an excellent non-executive director, who brings great experience and a strong moral compass to the table."

This is the problem. Even at the time Mr Higginson was writing this drivel (Dec 2020), the High Court had decided the organisation Paula Vennells ran for seven years had presented partial and misleading evidence and had a culture of "institutional paranoia" and "excessive secrecy". Did Mr Higginson read those High Court judgments? Did he ask her about them? 

Paula Vennells has also decided to stop preaching in the Bromham Benefice, where she is a non-stipendiary vicar, realising:

"my involvement with the Post Office has become a distraction from the good work undertaken in the Diocese of St Albans and in the parishes I serve."

Tom Hedges' visible delight at having his conviction quashed on Friday was captured for posterity by a number of press photograpahers outside the Court of Appeal. He is a committed Christian and has been writing to the Bishop of St Albans asking him to do something about Ms Vennells for a while. Last year the bishop released a statement, saying:

"there is a difference between allegations made against Post Office Limited and allegations of personal wrongdoing by Ms Vennells... I cannot simply impute to Ms Vennells all of the failures found to have been committed by Post Office Limited."

Yesterday the bishop said: "it is right that Ms Vennells stands back from public ministry."

What changed? The 39 convictions being quashed? What about the six at Southwark Crown Court in December last year? I don't think Mr Hedges wanted Ms Vennells to carry the can for all of the Post Office's failings. Just some of the ones on her watch - like the cover-up.

The Communications Workers Union has called for Paula Vennells to be stripped of her CBE, and the launch of a criminal investigation

Vennells certainly has serious questions to answer about her role - including why she chose in 2015 to tell parliament the Post Office had not "surfaced" any miscarriages of justice - but she's not the only one. Not by a long chalk.

Further reading:

Feb 2019 - "The Ballad of Paula Vennells" - thoughts on Vennells' "journey" written in advance of the first High Court trial judgment (ie before anyone in authority said the Post Office had done anything wrong).

May 2019 - "And with that... she was gone" - Paula Vennells ghosts out of the Post Office at the high point of its deepest ever crisis into the warm fuzzy embrace of the establishment.

Dec 2019 - "Is Paula Vennells a Fit and Proper Person?" - Dr Minh Alexander's letter to the CQC on why having people involved in corporate cover-ups running an NHS Trust might be a bad idea.

March 2020 - "Paula Vennells leaves Cabinet Office" - purely her choice. Purely her choice.

June 2020 - "Paula Vennells breaks her silence" - a revealing letter to the BEIS Select Committee.

June 2020 - "Paula Vennells leaves Ethical Investment Advisory Group"

Oct 2020 - "Business minister asks Dept of Health why Paula Vennells is still running an NHS Trust"

Dec 2020 - "Vennells steps down from NHS Trust" - purely her choice. Nothing to see here.

More:

Nov 2019 - "The Post Office's journey into disaster: accountability/oversight" - policy wonks only.

June 2020 - "Fujitsu tries to dodge the blame bus" - what about people who operated Horizon?

June 2020 - "Nick Read's selective awareness" - current Post Office CEO is disingenuous.

July 2020 - "The Post Office cover up, part 1: How and when it happened"

July 2020 - "The Post Office cover up, part 2: They wanted it all to go away" - naming more names.

Victim testimony - what this scandal did to people. In their own words. In all its horrible, evil detail.

*******************

I am currently running a crowdfunding campaign to ensure I can attend all relevant appeal court, high court and government inquiry hearings related to the Post Office Horizon IT scandal. Reward levels include access to the secret email, and a forthcoming book. Please click here for more information, and if you would like to support my work.

Friday, 23 April 2021

Court of Appeal quashed a further 39 convictions - bringing the total to 45

Banners, photographers, camera crews and celebrating Subpostmasters outside the RCJ today

There were jubilant scenes outside the Royal Courts of Justice today as 39 Subpostmasters' convictions were quashed by the Court of Appeal.

The panel of three judges said the Post Office had "steamrolled" Subpostmasters, and:

"effectively sought to reverse the burden of proof: it treated what was no more than a shortfall shown by an unreliable accounting system as an incontrovertible loss, and proceeded as if it were for the accused to prove that no such loss had occurred."

The judges also noted that the interventions of the barrister Simon Clarke, which spelled out to the Post Office that the shredding of documents was not okay, suggests: 

"there was a culture, amongst at least some in positions of responsibility within POL [Post Office Limited], of seeking to avoid legal obligations when fulfilment of those obligations would be inconvenient and/or costly"

Immediately outside court Seema Misra exclaimed: "I'm not a convicted criminal anymore! I'm so grateful and so thankful to everybody - especially to the court - to see justice."

The 39 convictions were quashed on:

Ground 1: "that the reliability of Horizon data was essential to the prosecution" and "it was not possible for the trial process to be fair" and

Ground 2: that the evidence shows "it was an affront to the public conscience for the appellants to face prosecution"

This now brings the total number of Subpostmaster convictions quashed by the court to 45 - six were overturned at Southwark Crown Court last December.

Appellants who had travelled many miles and campaigned for many years came together and told the waiting media of their joy, relief and bittersweet satisfaction at the verdict.

(l-r) Seema Misra, Janet Skinner and Tracy Felstead

Janet Skinner, who along with Seema and Tracy Felstead demanded an opportunity for all appellants to have their appeals considered on both the above grounds, explained why she thought it was important:

"We decided we had to fight it - we needed to prove it was an affront to the public conscience and we did. We smashed it!"

Rubbina Shaheen, who ended up homeless, living with her husband in a van after being released from prison said: "I'm over the moon and excited. Very very excited." When the judgment was handed down she said she "couldn't believe it at first. I was in tears."

Mohamed said "Our life was totally destroyed. Rubbina went through more hardship than I did, she is now on kidney dialysis which is all caused through stress. And now we want to more forward, hopefully, and try and recoup our losses."

Neil Hudgell, the solicitors representing the majority of today's appellants said:

"We're going to be seeking aggravated and exemplary damages because of the conduct of the Post Office... these are just decent folk going out to earn a living and to have a knock on the door one day and be accused of being dishonest, put in a position where they couldn't mount a defence - there was a calculated crushing of them and their ability to assert their innocence."

This is the full list of Subpostmasters whose convictions were overturned:

Jo Hamilton, Hughie Thomas, Allison Henderson, Alison Hall, Gail Ward, Julian Wilson (deceased), Jacqueline McDonald, Tracy Felstead, Janet Skinner, Scott Darlington, Seema Misra, Della Robinson, Khayyam Ishaq, David Hedges, Peter Holmes (deceased), Rubina Shaheen, Damien Owen, Mohammed Rasul, Wendy Buffrey, Kashmir Gill, Barry Capon, Vijay Parekh, Lynette Hutchings, Dawn O’Connell (deceased), Carl Page, Lisa Brennan, William Graham, Siobhan Sayer, Tim Burgess, Pauline Thomson, Nicholas Clark, Margery Williams, Tahir Mahmood, Ian Warren, David Yates, Harjinder Butoy, Gillian Howard, David Blakey and Pamela Lock now have their good reputations restored.

Three Subpostmasters - Wendy Cousins, Stanley Fell and Neelam Hussain - whose referrals were contested by the Post Office, failed to get their convictions quashed. The reason given was that Horizon IT evidence was deemed as not being central to their case.

It was an emotional day for everyone involved in the Subpostmasters campaign for justice - a brief moment of celebration in what has been an unlikely and incredible journey. There will be many more stories to come.

Judgment Day - picture gallery

At last....

I asked for anyone who had them to get in touch with photos of the post-judgment celebrations. I am posting them below with thanks to everyone who contributed. Please don't copy and re-use these without permission as the owners have kindly given them to this website to use here only.

If you have some photos taken outside court, at a pub nearby or from home as your victorious appellant returned, and you don't mind sharing, please get in touch - I'd be delighted to add them to this gallery. 

Also please forgive me if I have missed, or misspelled or got a picture caption wrong - please let me know and I'll correct it!

The country's media want to hear what Jo, Wendy, Noel, Tracy et al have to say

Early arrival, Wendy Buffrey

Seema and Davinder Misra

Supa-glam Janet Skinner flanked by equally supa-glam niece and daughter

Harjinder Butoy and family

Kamran and Siema Ashraf

A happy Scott Darlington

The extraordinary Jo Hamilton

Karen Wilson, holding a picture of Julian Wilson (RIP) with
(l-r) David Hill, Emma Jones and Trevor Wilson

Richard and Alison Hall with a masked-up Karl Flinders from
Computer Weekly lurking in the background

Seema Misra, Janet Skinner and Tracy Felstead
Let me see those hands in the air!

Lord Arbuthnot congratulates Noel Thomas

Lee Castleton with Noel Thomas

Some bloke who needs a haircut talking to Noel

Now what do we do....?

Barrister Flora Page with Janet Skinner

l-r Tracy Felstead, Flora Page, Nicki Arch

Hudgells staff and their clients strike a pose 

Neil Hudgell being interviewed outside court



Jo Hamilton has a moment with her phone

Chris Trousdale (l) whose conviction was overturned in December and relentless campaigner and social media presence Chris Head who was one of the 555 High Court claimants

Chris Head chats with Varchas Patel, whose father's conviction was overturned on 11 Dec 2020

Yes another photo of me and Jo Hamilton but who is that tall, dark stranger with the green mask? It's a rare sighting of Producer Bob, brains behind the Radio 4 series The Great Post Office Trial

Vijay Parekh (second from right) and family

A proper media scrum!


Wednesday, 21 April 2021

Settlement disagreement

Alan Bates
The confidential (now published) settlement agreement which ended the Subpostmasters' group litigation has been attacked twice in the space of two weeks by the two men who signed it. What's going on?

On 11 Dec 2019 the Bates v Post Office High Court litigation was brought to a sudden end by the announcement that both sides had settled.

The agreement's confidentiality was immediately broken by the Post Office, which gleefully confirmed to journalists it had got away with paying Subpostmasters the sum total of £57.75m. This sounds a lot, and is a lot, but not when you divide it by the 555 litigants and remove around £46m in legal fees.

I asked on the day of the announcement who had really won, and the mixed emotions among Subpostmasters when the settlement payments began to land were reported here.

Last year Alan Bates, lead claimant in the group litigation, crowdfunded a Parliamentary Ombudsman complaint against the government, seeking to claim back the fees he feels the government have a moral obligation to pay. 

Two weeks ago Nick Read, the Post Office Chief Executive, surprised everyone by swinging in behind him,  saying the government should indeed cough up.

Full n' final

The government has so far stood firm, saying the settlement is "full and final". This creates a two-tier compensation system - relative peanuts for those who threw their lot in with the litigants, but potential full redress for applicants to the Post Office's Historical Shortfall scheme

This scheme only exists because of the efforts of the claimants in forcing a very heavy loss on the Post Office (which fought tooth and nail to avoid responsibility for its actions), but it's only open to non-litigants. So it doesn't seem fair. In fact, it's not fair.

Now Alan Bates has written a piece for Computer Weekly which suggests that the settlement agreement itself is open to challenge, saying:

"in trying to agree a settlement figure, the only issues that could be used to calculate a financial figure were based on those legal points we had won as part of the judgments in the two trials that had been held."

There were, apparently a further eight points set to be contested as part of the litigation, but the claimants "did not have the funds to carry on with the case". Mr Bates says the 555 claimants:

"have never received a penny for these other eight – and possibly significantly more – issues, yet the Post Office Historical Shortfall Scheme, with 2,400 applicants, will compensate those people for all the 10 issues. The Post Office, BEIS and the government will not allow the 555 to take part in the scheme, no doubt as further punishment for daring to take the Post Office to court and exposing the failures of them all."

Mr Bates stops short of saying whether or not he'll be going after the Post Office or the government to open up the other eight litigation points but concludes:

"when you see the Post Office, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Her Majesty’s Government bandying around the phrase “full and final settlement”, in actuality they are only referring to the issues that formed part of the first two trials, although they would have you think everything had been addressed. Some people might think they were deliberately trying to mislead everyone."

Could the settlement be reopened? I approached Freeths, the solicitors instructed by Mr Bates to see if they had any response to the Computer Weekly piece. They told me they were not able to comment, due to "some final consequential legal steps” still being carried out in relation to "following through the Post Office’s procedural obligations under the settlement agreement itself."

The third way

Chris Head

Chris Head is a group litigation claimant who has campaigned tirelessly since the settlement agreement - taking petitions to Downing Street and building a decent following on social media for his efforts. The day after the publication of the Post Office's latest annual report in March this year, Mr Head wrote to Mr Read with a suggestion:

"The Post Office (with recommendations from yourself) could request from the government a further commercial loan at an agreed interest rate to cover the entire cost of full settlement to the group, settlement of the Historical Shortfall scheme and settlement of the malicious prosecution claims that are to follow after the conclusion of the Court of Appeal hearing.  This loan could be provided to the Post Office on a long term basis anything from 20 to even 30/40 year period with the ability to re-negotiate the terms as needed based on profitability and cash flow."

Mr Head announced today on twitter that he had been contacted by Mr Read to set up a meeting to discuss his proposal.

I suspect there will be more to come on this once the Court of Appeal has handed down its rulings on the 42 Subpostmaster appellants (and the Post Office's behaviour in prosecuting them) on Friday.

The full text of Mr Head's letter can be read below:

"25 March 2021

Dear Nick Read,

I write to you with regards to the Post Office Horizon Scandal and after your statement alongside the annual accounts that were released yesterday.

It is encouraging to hear the change in tone at Post Office Ltd with regarding to maximising the potential of Postmasters which as you rightly say was not the case previously.  Without them the Post Office does not exist as they make up the vast majority of the business.  The other point to make is every single one of these Postmaster owned branches are different.  They are based in different locations, have different cliental and football, and for this reason one model does and never has suited all.  Although it is important that Post Office make a profit, it is imperative that these Postmasters thrive and want to grow their business not fighting against a management who only want to drive cost efficiency without any inventive ideas to grow.  

I want to give you my background; back in 2006 aged 18 I became at the time the UK’s youngest Sub Postmaster.  Having worked at my local branch in the retail offering from 12 years old delivering newspapers and then from 14 behind the retail counter I knew the type of business inside out by the time I was 18.  Having come from a family who had no business or retail experience, only office based jobs they were not very keen on me taking this avenue.  When the business came up for sale I approached a number of banks to raise the funding to proceed.  After months of negotiating and business plans and having spent over 5 years saving £10,000 from such a young age I secured the mortgage and passed the Post Office interview.  My branch was a single position, small village community branch with an income of £18,100 (£10,900 of that being an assigned office payment and the remainder commission).  Over the presiding 7 years I was able to grow the Post Office income year on year until it reached over £30,000 at a time when a very large percentage were seeing year on year cuts from falling footfall, lower product commissions and loss of products and services.  Having a salary of this size in a single counter office (Post Office was no more than 9 square metres in size) in a community setting was almost unheard of.  The secret behind that was although the Post Office was pushing me to push all the banking and telecoms products I knew the core business was far more important to my business and for me to thrive.  I was successful in selling credit cards, telecoms and insurance but I knew that this was limited to me because of the area and my customer base.  The vast majority were elderly, had no bank accounts and on the BT Basic scheme where we couldn’t transfer them to the Post Office telephone service.  I didn’t receive a great amount of passing trade, so I had to focus on Mails, Banking and Travel that would result in repeat business and repeat commission for income.  I spent months building up a rapport with businesses and individuals who I knew would return week in and week out.  Doing this allowed me to grow the Post Office income whilst also growing my retail business with continued daily and weekly visits from these customers.  I can see your vision for a return to basics, it is just sad that it has taken so long and many offices are virtually unviable as a result of the Network Transformation program.  

Anyway onto the main reason I am writing to you today.  You talk about your excitement being tempered by the group litigation between yourselves and the Post Office (myself being one of them).  You came in and wanted it resolved, however the way Post Office Ltd conducted itself in the litigation was nothing short of a disgrace.  Spending unlimited amounts of taxpayer cash, attempting to bring the court into disrepute by applying for the judge to recluse himself simply because you didn’t like his findings and the failure to disclose documents that were in the possession of the Post Office.  At times Post Office released documents way beyond deadlines hampering the claimants build a case.  It is now known as heard in the Court of Appeal this week that Post Office still had not released all the relevant documents to the claimants in that previous civil litigation, not really a great look for openness and transparency is it?  Also forgive me for not trusting the Post Office by since it has also come to light about a member of the security team authorising the shredding of documents and meeting minutes, how do we know this hasn’t happened previously before that date without 100% full disclosure of every single document the business holds.  You say there is and has been a dissonance within the Post Office.  It has always been a ‘them and us’ approach in the 9.5 years I was a Sub Postmaster.  

You must realise that due to the actions of Post Office Ltd in court and the unlimited funding Post Office had from BEIS as they allowed you to continue with the litigation as seen in FOI requests, the claimants had very little chance of success overall, our funding was running low and you simply outspent us.  The judge mentioned on numerous occasions that even for a commercial entity the spending was obscene.  We were therefore forced into settlement, not out of choice.  Had we continued we would have ran out of funding and had to stop and even if we were successful the amounts needing to be repaid to our funder could have eclipsed the damages awarded.  Now it was us as claimants who exposed all the shocking revelations of the Post Office’s actions over the two decades and allowed you to make the necessary changes you are.  Without us the business would not be able to be turned around.  I fully endorse the Historical Shortfall scheme you have agreed to utilise to ensure Postmasters are given redress for the actions of the Post Office.  However as you are probably aware because these new claimants have no legal expenses and Post Office has already been exposed therefore even if these new claimants decide to take the legal route rather than the new scheme, Post Office will not have much of a defence.  Therefore whichever option these new claimants make they are to receive substantially more compensation, much closer to the actual losses they made at the hands of the Post Office.  You want to reset the relationship with Postmasters past and present and change the culture of the Post Office.  I am afraid that until full disclosure is made and changes made to this Historical Shortfall scheme this cannot and will not happen.  For the same scandal and cover-up one group of claimants who didn’t bother to join the group litigation are now going to receive far greater sums of compensation, and how are they to achieve that by using the judgement from us claimants who battled tooth and nail to expose years of wrongdoing and cover-up within the Post Office. 

 So if you are genuine regarding resetting the relationship of Sub Postmasters, changing the culture within the Post Office and turning the business model on its head then I urge you to do the right thing and go further.  Allow the 555 claimants to use the historical shortfall scheme to have their cases and losses calculated as they would have in the scheme had they not gone down the litigation route (let’s remember this scheme would never have been setup if it hadn’t been for us and Post Office would be carrying on as if nothing had happened) and then deduct the amounts they have already received from the £11 million litigation settlement (after legal expenses) from the amount due under the new shortfall scheme.  This would show you genuinely want to put this scandal to bed once and for all and move on.  The reality is otherwise it is not going away as the group will continue until fair justice is delivered for everyone and continue to expose the Post Office wrongdoings.  

I have written to the Secretary of State, the Postal Minister and the Prime Minister outlining similar to what I have suggested along with calls to make the inquiry statutory.  Also I have suggested another idea instead of the government/taxpayer footing the bill for all of this mess as is currently the case.  The Post Office (with recommendations from yourself) could request from the government a further commercial loan at an agreed interest rate to cover the entire cost of full settlement to the group, settlement of the Historical Shortfall scheme and settlement of the malicious prosecution claims that are to follow after the conclusion of the Court of Appeal hearing.  This loan could be provided to the Post Office on a long term basis anything from 20 to even 30/40 year period with the ability to re-negotiate the terms as needed based on profitability and cash flow.  From the recent accounts without the one time exceptional items of the litigation and legal costs it appears the Post Office is progressing in the right direction to profitability.  You could use the annual profits to pay an agreed % of that off this new loan so therefore the more profit that is made the more that is repaid.  Wouldn’t this send to the public and Postmasters that the Post Office itself is paying for the mistakes and wrongdoing of the past rather than the taxpayer footing the majority of the bill.  It also allows the Post Office the flexibility based on its future progress and profit.  I know the business needs to succeed and want to see this happen regardless of the past especially for the current Postmasters.  This would also help send the message that the Post Office is committed to resetting its relationship with Postmasters, change its past image and move on from the dark days of the past.

I am happy to discuss these ideas with you further if you so wish.  

I look forward to your response.  

Respectfully,

Christopher Head

Ex Postmaster West Boldon Post Office"

*******************

I am currently running a crowdfunding campaign to ensure I can attend all relevant appeal court, high court and government inquiry hearings related to the Post Office Horizon IT scandal. Reward levels include access to the secret email, and a forthcoming book. Please click here for more information, and if you would like to support my work.