|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."
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 email@example.com
My advice would be to speak to a lawyer first.
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.