|(l-r) Janet Skinner, Seema Misra and Tracy Felstead|
Today was the first day of a Court of Appeal hearing at the end of which 42 former Subpostmasters (three of whom are pictured above) hope to have their convictions overturned.
The allegations aired against the Post Office this morning went far beyond anything we have ever heard about the Horizon scandal before, to the extent that Sam Stein QC (speaking on behalf of five appellants) told the court that if Mr Justice Fraser had been disclosed the information available to the Court of Appeal during the Bates v Post Office civil litigation he might have suggested certain people at the Post Office should be walking themselves into a "handy police station as soon as possible."
Mr Stein noted the Horizon scandal had had the effect of turning the Post Office "into the nations most untrustworthy brand."
The biggest revelation came via the Clarke Advice - not the Clarke Advice I've been keen to see for a while, but another Clarke Advice, written by the same barrister in July 2013.
Simon Clarke worked as counsel for Cartwright King (CK), a firm of solicitors contracted to the Post Office, engaged in prosecuting Subpostmasters on their behalf.
It seems that, in response to the issues raised by independent investigators Second Sight and Simon Clarke's original advice, the Post Office agreed to set up some kind of central disclosure hub, which would allow the Post Office to share any problems with Horizon to the prosecutors who were busy taking thieving Subpostmasters to court.
Part of maintaining this hub involved weekly meetings, with minutes taken. After the third meeting, Simon Clarke contacted the Post Office, stating:
"The minutes of a previous conference call had been typed and emailed to a number of persons. An instruction was then given [by an unnamed person within the Post Office] that those emails and minutes should be, and have been, destroyed: the word "shredded" was conveyed to me."
Mr Clarke also indicated he had been told that handwritten minutes were no longer to be typed and should be forwarded to the Post Office's Head of Security. Mr Clarke went on to note that doing this was a Bad Thing and may well amount to a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.
Mr Stein, who read out this note in court, said:
"what we have is a disclosure system set up and we see the Post Office reaction to it is one of dishonesty and destruction and shredding of documents, and you cannot see this any other way."
Of the order to send all hand-written minutes to the Post Office's Head of Security, Mr Stein pointed out drily that this "was not, you would imagine, for safe-keeping."
Lisa Busch, acting on behalf of the three appellants pictured above, said the way the Post Office had behaved over the last 20 years "beggars belief" not least because:
"There was ample evidence that Horizon was flawed from the date of its conception"
"in the circumstances where there may have been bugs, the critical point was that the Post Office had a duty to get to the bottom of what was plainly going wrong, even if there was no investigative duty, there is sufficient evidence to establish one. Not only did they not carry out an investigation, they positively covered up the existence of such evidence as it was made available."
She concluded that over twenty years the Post Office:
"systematically misled the criminal courts and sought to mislead the civil courts in the course of the group litigation"
These are big allegations, made by experienced barristers based on evidence they have examined, and it seems the Post Office are not (today at least) in the business of denying any of this is true.
Rather, they take issue with the appellants' collective "broad brush" approach. The Post Office says the right thing to do, and the correct thing in law, is to look at each individual appellant's case. As Brian Altman, QC for the Post Office said:
"each case of each alleged abuse of process must give regard to its own facts and circumstances"
Mr Altman spent some time taking the court through the case law which supported this view and promised to articulate the dangers of not following it. This will take up most of tomorrow morning.
Possibly unique, certainly unprecendent
Because of social distancing rules there weren't many appellants around in court today, but I did catch up with Janet Skinner, a former Subpostmistress sent to prison in 2007 (and an extraordinary interviewee in last year's Panorama). I asked Janet if she caught the discussion about shredding documents. She had, and she said:
"Does it surprise me? Not in the slightest. Hopefully the judges will see the Post Office for what they really are. I don't have any expectation. I'll just have to see how it goes. You know what it's like. You think it's going one way and then it goes a totally different direction."
Seema Misra, sent to prison in 2010 (and another Panorama alumnus), took a similar view:
"It doesn't surprise me because I know what we're dealing with here. We knew this must be happening but now it's all in the open so everyone can hear."
She wants people at the Post Office held accountable:
"Definitely. They knew they were doing wrong and they still went ahead with it. They should get punished for it. I want lots of things to happen."
The hearing was due to last four days, but I think there is already an acknowledgement that this will tip over into Friday. There's so much going on everywhere else it's difficult to focus on just how big a story this is, but as Mr Altman said today:
"The court of appeal with 42 cases before it, is possibly unique. It’s certainly unprecedented."
Proceedings resume at 10.30am tomorrow.
UPDATE: document shredder in chief named! Click here for more.
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.