The final day of the four day hearing at the Court of Appeal this week concerned three specific cases whose appeals are being contested by the Post Office.
Stanley Fell was a Subpostmaster at Newton Bergoland Post Office. £19,000 was allegedly missing from his branch. He pleaded guilty to covering it up, and was convicted of false accounting on 27 July 2007 at Leicester Crown Court. He was given a two year suspended sentence.
Wendy Cousins was a Subpostmaster at Hertford Heath Post Office. She was convicted of the theft of £13,000 on 5 May 2009 after pleading guilty at St Albans Crown Court. She was given a nine month suspended prison sentence.
Neelam Hussain worked at West Bromwich Post Office in the West Midlands. She was convicted of stealing £83,000 on the 20 June 2011 after pleading guilty to theft at Wolverhampton Crown Court. She was sentenced 18 months in prison.
All three were considered to have a strong enough case to be referred to the Court of Appeal by the Criminal Cases Review Commission.
Brian Altman, QC for the Post Office, wasn't too sure. Mr Altman was at pains to point out that all the CCRC referrals were made on the basis that Horizon data was an essential aspect of their initial prosecution by the Post Office.
The CCRC had been able to make referrals on that basis, largely because the High Court found the Post Office's Horizon IT system to be "not remotely reliable" in the first ten years of its existence (and not much better than that until 2017).
"I wish to offer the Post Office and my family an unreserved apology for my financial negligence but wish to reaffirm without prejudice that at no time have I sought to steal or defraud the Post Office of any stock or cash whilst in my custody. It has always been my intention to repay the money to the Post Office."
"the first 18 entries on that schedule are not supported by physical vouchers or green giros. They are supported exclusively, or almost exclusively, by information derived from Horizon. What I am saying is I am quite concerned about the reliability of a prosecution that is relying on, in effect, a single source of evidence in relation to those items. A combination of that, together with the flaws in the identification of beneficiaries, causes me further concern."Zoe Johnson QC cross-examined Mr Henderson for the Post Office, and made the point that if there were some kind of phantom-duplicating-transactions bug, it would have become immediately apparent to Ms Cousins, because she had to manually reconcile the number of giro vouchers in her possession with the number of transactions on her Horizon terminal every week.
"I have listened to the testimony of well over 100 sub-postmasters. A very frequent event was a problem occurring and when they raised that problem with the help desk. The help desk would say, "Well, don't worry, it will sort itself out next week or the week after". That was a very frequent response from the Post Office to problems. So I am speculating, but I could envisage a situation where, if Ms Cousins found that there was a transaction listed by Horizon that was not supported by one of the giro cheques, she might feel, "Well, don't worry about it, it is going to reverse itself or be resolved next week". That was what many sub-postmasters were told quite frequently."
Neelam Hussain found herself caught in a lie - several lies according to her own barrister - and the question remains as to whether she did so to cover inexplicable Horizon losses, or as the Post Office would have it, criminality.
Ms Hussain, a post office manager, pleaded guilty to creating a phantom stock unit within her branch and transferring more than £80,000 in cash into it. At the time, the defence were served with a statement from Fujitsu (which operates the Horizon system on behalf of the Post Office) saying that at all material times, Horizon was working correctly. Christopher Millington QC, Ms Hussain's barrister, told the court it is therefore: "fanciful to suggest that this is not a Horizon case".
He referred to a witness statement from a Fujitsu employee, Penelope Thomas:
"And that witness offered a guarantee of reliability for that data. Had the defendant, as she was then, maintained the not guilty plea, or pleas that had been offered, and decided to have her trial, and had one of the lines of defence to which the respondent had been alerted in the defence statement, namely that the losses may be attributable to computer error, had she pursued that particular line through her counsel, no doubt that would have been met by the evidence from this witness, who guaranteed the reliability of the data that had been produced in support of the prosecution case."
"showed that she had behaved deceitfully on a number of occasions and I concede that she did. They say that she told lies and I concede that she did. She transferred mythical amounts of stock into an account that had nothing in it, she says in order to falsely account for the apparent very large shortfall."
"When she was interviewed by a probation officer after the event, she sought to recall a story that all of this cash had gone to fund medical expenses for her mother in Pakistan, which, when investigated, was discovered to be a pack of lies but it was offered in order to curry sympathy with the sentencing judge."
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