Thursday, 22 July 2021

Government to make interim payments of up to £100,000 to "unconvicted" Subpostmasters

Postmasters celebrating the quashing of their convictions in April this year

At last, a proper bit of cold, hard cash will finally be making its way into campaigning Subpostmasters' pockets, and soon.

Today the Business Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng told parliament:

"interim payments of up to £100,000 promptly to individual postmasters whose criminal convictions relied on Horizon data and have been quashed, ahead of final compensation settlements being agreed with them."

Paul Scully, the minister for Postal Affairs said:

"The suffering and distress these postmasters and their families have gone through cannot be overstated. While nothing will make up for the years of pain they faced after this appalling injustice, I hope this initial step provides a measure of comfort."

The government has chosen to ignore the majority of civil claimants, led by Alan Bates, the founder of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, who won a stunning series of victories against the Post Office at the High Court

Nothing yet for civil claimants

The 555 claimants in that case won £57.75m in compensation from the Post Office, but £46m went on lawyers' and litigation funders' fees, as the Post Office allegedly pursued a deliberate strategy to try to outspend the claimants in court.

Bates' has been demanding the £46m from the government ever since. His claims have so far been ignored, despite the Post Office supporting his argument.

I spoke to a delighted Seema Misra today. Vindication is one thing, and for her it was the single most important thing, but it doesn't pay the mortgage. 

Seema was sent to prison in 2010 on her son's tenth birthday whilst she was pregnant with her second child. She very nearly lost her baby (who I am delighted to say is now a delightful young man). I made this film with Seema's husband, Davinder, whilst his wife was still in prison.

Immense anguish

There are people who have been earning a pittance or not working at all for years as a result of the convictions. The nest eggs they should have been building don't exist, they have debts and difficulties that were visited on them by a state-owned prosecution machine which did not have anything like the competence to wield its power properly.

Janet Skinner, who was sent to prison in 2007, and whose conviction was quashed in April this year, alongside Seema's, issued a statement today saying:

"I had to wait 14 years to have my wrongful conviction by the Post Office overturned by the Court of Appeal. I welcome today's announcement. The government, as the Post Office's owner and sole shareholder, was behind the Post Office's ruthless and unjustified defence of the civil litigation in which I was one of the claimants. That litigation caused immense anguish to those who like me - and my family - who had already suffered so much by wrongful imprisonment."

Tracy Felstead, who was sent to prison aged 19 in 2002 told me: 

"I’m happy and I’m glad the government and the Post Office are trying to sort this terrible miscarriage of justice. Unfortunately for some it’s too late, but I am grateful that they are trying to put an end to this."

Tracy has spent almost her entire adult life a convicted criminal, and knowing she had been wrongfully convicted caused her all sorts of mental health problems. I spoke to her this morning (before we knew the government was going to make this announcement) and she told me of the flashbacks, sleeplessness paranoia and trust issues which have plagued her life. 

l-r Seema, Janet and Tracy, on the day their convictions were quashed

Tracy also said that despite her conviction being quashed she still thinks everything is going to be taken away from her, because when she was a young woman the state took everything away from her and gave her no coherent reason for doing so. What's to stop that happening again?

Neil Hudgell, the solicitor representing the vast majority of the Subpostmasters whose convictions have been overturned at the Court of Appeal and the Crown Court in the last few months said:

“The dialogue we have been having with legal representatives instructed by the Post Office has been very positive to this date and there appears to be good intentions. This cautiously positive step is to be welcomed and suggests, hopefully, that the Post Office is now intending to do right by the many people it has harmed so badly.  This cannot be a delaying gesture though. This is money to which these clients are entitled. With regards to how final settlements are agreed, we want them to come to the table and be meaningful in what they put forward."

The Postmasters will have to apply for their interim payment, but it will not affect their rights to sue the Post Office for malicious prosecution. The Post Office has said it hopes the total sums of compensation due to individual Subpostmasters can be resolved by Alternative Dispute Resolution, often seen as a quicker and cheaper route to justice.

Paul Marshall, the barrister who worked with Seema Misra, Tracy Felstead and Janet Skinner said today:

"Interim payments of up to £100,000 to be made by the government (given that the Post Office has been rendered technically insolvent by the scale of the claims against it) to those whose convictions were quashed on appeal will no doubt make a very considerable difference to many of those afflicted by the Post Office’s mendacity in its prosecutions and its subsequent ill-conceived defence of the civil claims made against it.  It is also a very sensible commercial decision that may well protect the Post Office from a sizeable number of modest claims for malicious prosecution."   

Marshall wonders: 

"whether the government’s change of heart may be informed by considerations as to how things may play out in the Williams’ Inquiry, and that no harm will be done to the government by being seen to do ‘the decent thing’"

The Post Office CEO, Nick Read, said:

“Ensuring compensation is made as quickly as possible is a priority for Post Office. I welcome the Government’s support to enable these interim payments that begin to provide some redress to people who were badly failed. Whilst we cannot change the past, this is an important step towards meaningful compensation for victims and we will offer payments as soon as possible.”

Last word to Tim Brentall, a Hudgells client, whose conviction was quashed on Monday. He simply said: "It's a decent start."

Oh, and if you want to know what scandal is in Turkish, it's "skandalinda" - this story is spreading...*

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UPDATE: * I am indebted to Matthew Scott, author of the excellent Barrister Blog, who kindly pointed out to me (within hours of the above piece being posted) that the Turkish for scandal is, rather prosaically, "skandal". 

He writes: "Skandalı can mean "the scandal" (it's more complicated than that though), and skandalında means "in the scandal"."

If I ever try to teach you Turkish again, suggest we do something else.

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This blog is crowdfunded. I am also writing a book called The Great Post Office Scandal, which will be published by Bath Publishing in October 2021. If you would like to put a few quid in the tip jar (and join the "secret" email newsletter mailing list) or would like to buy a copy of the book, please click here.

Monday, 19 July 2021

12 more convictions quashed - total now 59


(l-r) Sami Sabet, Carina Price, Harmukh Shingadia, Jerry Hosi, Tim Brentnall

Twelve more Subpostmasters have had their convictions quashed at the Court of Appeal today. 

They were part of a group of 31 appeals under consideration. All of the twelve whose convictions were quashed were prosecuted by the Post Office, with Horizon IT evidence central to their prosecutions. The Post Office chose not to oppose the appeals, which allowed the courts to overturn them at the earliest possible opportunity - today.

The first person I introduced myself to outside court was Jerry Hosi, who you can see with his thumbs up in the picture above. Jerry ran the Porters Avenue Post Office in Dagenham. He found himself with an £82,000 discrepancy. He said all along it was Horizon causing problems and his case went to trial. In 2010 he was found guilty of theft, false accounting and fraud and sentenced to nearly two years in Pentonville Prison. Today he just said: "I feel very proud and I feel very happy because justice has finally been done.”

Tim Bentnall, who I recently interviewed, came down from Pembrokeshire with his partner Steph. He said he was feeling:

"Up in the clouds. Amazing. I still have this burning anger at the Post Office inside me but at the moment we’re up at the top."
Tim 'n Steph

Tim was convicted in 2010 after pleading guilty to false accounting. I asked him how he'd slept ahead of today's hearing. He gave a revealing answer:

"Not last night, no, I haven’t slept well… When I had the email from Hudgells to say my appeal wasn’t being opposed - I slept so well for the next three nights it made me realise how I haven’t slept for the last ten years. If you’d asked me three months ago I’d have said yeah I’m fine, I’ve dealt with it really well, I’m really stoic but now knowing that I’ve been vindicated you realise how low… and how it has affected you over this decade.”

I asked what were his feelings towards the Post Office over the way it had behaved. He replied:

"Disgust and anger. There’s hundreds of us now, and one of the main points was they convinced nearly every one of us that it was only a singular occurance - that we were only having our own individual problem. When I was prosecuted in 2010, there was a huge number of prosecutions going on."

Carina Price, flanked by husband Steve (l) and Neil Hudgell from Hudgell solicitors

Carina Price was convicted in 2005 after auditors found a £13,000 hole in her accounts at Sopley Post Office, near Ringwood in Dorset. Carina said the the last 16 years have been hard:

"It broke my marriage up. It was a very bad time. I had a breakdown over it. Before they [the Post Office investigators] came in and everything else I couldn’t understand what was going wrong and i was tearing my hair out over it and I was getting to the point where I was suicidal, because I just couldn’t work out what was going wrong."

Carina first found out she wasn't alone by making contact with the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance: 

"Then I realised I wasn’t the only person. But the problem was, I wasn’t coping very well  and I lost touch with them. And I thought the Post Office would win! I thought the JFSA were never going to get anywhere with this. Then I heard about the first court cases going on at the Court of Appeal so I phoned Hudgells.”

Carina says her legal team have done "an amazing job. They’ve turned our lives around with all the work they’ve done."

The 19 remaining cases are all being opposed. They will be heard over five days either towards the end of this year or next year. Fifteen of the cases are Post Office prosecutions and four are being opposed by the Crown Prosecution Service. The reason for the CPS being involved is because the DWP, who prosecuted four of the appellants, had its prosecution function folded into the CPS some time ago.

Only one of the 19 cases is a direct referral from the Criminal Cases Review Commission. He is an appellant. The other 18 are applicants who applied direct to the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal has not yet given them leave to appeal and has ordered them to make their case to a single High Court judge in order to get to the appellant state. All are represented by Hudgells.

In April this year the Court of Appeal upheld the three convictions which were opposed by the Post Office, which argued Horizon data was not essential to their cases. Of the 15 cases the Post Office is opposing this time round, they are taking the same position. The DWP is refusing to comment.

On today's successful appeals the Post Office said:

“Post Office is sincerely sorry for past failures and we welcome the Court’s decision today to quash convictions without delay in the appeals we supported.

“We are making strenuous efforts to fairly address historical miscarriages of justice, including an extensive review of prosecutions since 1999 to identify and disclose all material which might affect the safety of convictions.

“We are also transforming our organisation to prevent such events ever happening again and to re-set our relationship with postmasters.”

Neil Hudgell said:
"Today is another step forward in terms of maintaining the momentum and ensuring we continue to contest every unsafe conviction as a result of the Post Office using its faulty Horizon computer system to pursue prosecutions against decent, honest, law-abiding people. 

“Once again we have been proud to represent a group of people here who did no wrong, who were bullied into admitting to crimes they had not committed, made to pay back large sums of money they had not taken and who saw their lives irreparably damaged as a result. 

“This group again includes people who spent time in prison. Sadly, what happened to each individual and their families can never be reversed. That makes it all the more important for it to be recognised by the Post Office and the courts.”

If you want to read today's live-tweets from inside court, they are all collated here on one easy-to-read web page.

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This blog is crowdfunded. I am also writing a book called The Great Post Office Scandal, which will be published by Bath Publishing in October 2021. If you would like to put a few quid in the tip jar (and join the "secret" email newsletter mailing list) or would like to buy a copy of the book, please click here.

Sunday, 11 July 2021

Second Sight were told about remote access in 2012

On Monday 7 June 2021 a panel of wise minds gathered remotely at an event hosted by University College London's Faculty of Law to discuss "Justice for Subpostmasters in the Post Office case". The seminar was chaired by Iris Chiu, the director of the centre for Ethics and Law at UCL.

It was a fascinating two hour event, which can be watched here or above on the embedded youtube link.

The participants were: Ian Henderson from Second Sight, Paul Marshall from Cornerstone Barristers, Flora Page from 23 Essex Chambers, Nick Gould from Aria Grace Law, Dineshi Ramesh from Board Intelligence, Anthony Edwards (retired solicitor), Jonathan Rogers from the University of Cambridge, Richard Moorhead from the University of Exeter and Alan Brener from the Centre for Ethics and Law at UCL.

As Mr Henderson explains below, Second Sight were appointed in 2012 by MPs, campaigners and the Post Office to conducted an independent investigation of the Post Office's Horizon IT system. They were contracted by the Post Office.

Mr Henderson's brief presentation on 7 June 2021 contained information not yet widely known:

- The admission by Fujitsu engineer and Horizon Architect Gareth Jenkins in September 2012 of routine remote access to branch terminals without the specific consent or knowledge of Subpostmasters

- Second Sight's concerns about prosecutor misconduct at the Post Office.

- The "litigation hold" instruction in 2012 which should have preserved all relevant documents at that point and going forward. (Possibly ignored according to the Clarke Advices documents)

- The existence of "CD1" as a definitive record of prosecution documents including legal advice to Post Office in September 2012. 

Mr Henderson also provided a list of question he feels need to be addressed by the Williams inquiry into the Post Office scandal.

Remote access

Before you read the full transcript of Mr Henderson's contribution, consider this: if Gareth Jenkins was telling the Post Office's independent investigators that remote access to branch terminals without the specific consent or knowledge of Subpostmasters was possible in 2012:

- what was the chief executive of the Post Office doing telling her staff she needed to know it was not possible in January 2015?

- what were three senior Post Office Executives - Mark Davies, Patrick Bourke and Angela van den Bogerd - doing telling Panorama later the same year that it was definitely not possible?

Second Sight issued its final report on 9 April 2015. In it, the authors (of whom Mr Henderson was one) state:

“Our current, evidence-based opinion is that Fujitsu/Post Office, did have and may well still have the ability to directly alter branch records without the knowledge of the Subpostmaster.”

The Post Office suppressed that report and circulated a rebuttal document, rubbishing everything in it. I published Second Sight's report in full shortly afterwards.

You can read the full text of Mr Henderson's presentation below:

"Good afternoon

Thank you for the opportunity to provide some background to these appalling miscarriages of justice.

My name is Ian Henderson. I am a director of Second Sight, the forensic accountancy firm appointed in 2012 to conduct an independent investigation into matters of concern relating to the Horizon IT system. I am qualified both as a Chartered Accountant and as an IT Auditor.

Second Sight was appointed by a small group of Members of Parliament at the request of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (‘JFSA’). Our professional fees were paid directly by Post Office, who also supported our appointment. JFSA had been pressing for some form of independent inquiry for many years and had gained the support of influential MPs representing constituents who had suffered mysterious shortfalls in branch accounts.

Our appointment was not straightforward. There was much suspicion that we would be a “poodle” for Post Office, or otherwise fail to approach the inquiry from a fiercely independent, professional point of view. 

Our terms of appointment were quite clear. They included:

• Unrestricted access to documents held by Post Office (including documents subject to confidentiality and legal professional privilege); 

• No limitation in the scope of work determined necessary by Second Sight.

In the course of our work, over more than 3 years, we investigated approximately 140 individual cases. 

We reviewed the sub-postmasters’ own assertions; the cases put forward on their behalf by their professional advisors together with Post Office’s reports prepared in response. 

We examined thousands of documents and established which were significant. We created a structured, evidential database of over 34,000 individual documents. 

We identified 19 thematic issues that were common features to many of the cases under examination. 

We were then able to cross-reference each case to others having similar characteristics.  

Our work started in the summer of 2012. Initially, Post Office were co-operative and appeared committed to the agreed goal – “to seek the truth, irrespective of the consequences”. 

Within a few days of our appointment, we asked for 2 actions to be taken:

Issue a Post Office wide “litigation hold” that would prevent any further documents being destroyed; and

Send all of the prosecution files then held by Post Office to a third-party scanning bureau. This ensured that these vital documents would be preserved and made more readily available. This comprised approximately 4,000 documents and was known as CD1.

In September 2012 I met with Gareth Jenkins, the lead engineer for Horizon, at the head office of Fujitsu in Bracknell. I was told that approximately 10 members of staff from Post Office were permanently based in Bracknell, dealing with various issues including bugs, errors and defects. 

I was also told that Fujitsu routinely used remote access to branch terminals for various purposes, without the knowledge or specific consent of individual sub-postmasters. 

Within days of being provided with CD1, we realised that we may be looking at a significant number of miscarriages of justice. There was a lack of effective investigation, multiple disclosure failures and conduct by prosecutors that needed to be considered by experts in criminal law and prosecutions.

At about this time, the attitude of Post Office changed. Requests for further documents and explanations were taking longer and longer to be provided.

By this stage we were supporting the Complaint and Mediation Scheme set up by Post Office and chaired by Sir Anthony Hooper, a retired Court of Appeal Judge.

We were getting increasing amounts of push-back from Post Office. Let us look briefly at a clip from the 2015 Select Committee hearing:

"Ian Henderson: We felt it was necessary for us to review the internal legal files, looking at the depth of any investigation that had happened and possibly even legal advice relating to the prosecution.

Nadhim Zahawi: Paula, why don’t you hand those files over? What is the problem?

Paula Vennells: The point I want to pick up first, if I may—

Nadhim Zahawi: No, answer my question. Why will you not give Ian Henderson those files?

Paula Vennells: As far as I am aware, Mr Zahawi, we have shared whatever information was appropriate on every single individual.

Nadhim Zahawi: That is not what Ian Henderson is saying.

Paula Vennells: It is the first time, personally, that I have heard that. I am happy to go away and have a look.

Nadhim Zahawi: He has said that under no circumstances could he be given those files. That is what you have just told me. Is that right?

Ian Henderson: We have not been given those files.

Nadhim Zahawi: You have been told by Paula’s organisation that under no circumstances could you be given those files. Is that right or wrong?

Paula Vennells: Who told you that, Ian?

Ian Henderson: It came up at one of the working group meetings, at which you and I were present.

Angela van den Bogerd: I do not recall that conversation.

Nadhim Zahawi: This sounds like a shambles to me. You came in here and opened by saying the system was working beautifully. You now realise why you are in front of the Committee.

Paula Vennells: Ian said—he is quite right—that the reason we set up this mediation scheme was to get to the truth about this system. The system itself is working very well.

Nadhim Zahawi: But you have been obstructive. We are hearing from Ian that your organisation has been obstructive to his independent work. Is that right or wrong?

Paula Vennells: It is wrong. We have provided for every single case detailed, thorough, independent investigation. They run to pages and pages of reports. There are on average 80 pieces of evidence—

Nadhim Zahawi: Let me stop you here. We have just heard from Ian Henderson, who is independent, that you have not provided the prosecution files that they think they should look at. They need your files, not just what is publicly available. They need that information. Will you provide it? Yes or no?

Paula Vennells: Mr Zahawi, you have just heard that it is the first time I have heard that piece of information.

Nadhim Zahawi: I am simply asking for a commitment from you. You are the head of the organisation. Will you provide it? Yes or no? Give me a simple answer.

Paula Vennells: Mr Henderson is a forensic accountant. He is not a qualified legal individual. Neither am I.

Nadhim Zahawi: I am simply asking whether you will provide it—yes or no?

Paula Vennells: I am not prepared on behalf of the Post Office to give—

Nadhim Zahawi: Right. I have got my answer. You will not provide it.

Paula Vennells: No, you have not got your answer. You have not heard a yes or a no. I am simply saying that at the moment I am not able to answer your question.

Nadhim Zahawi: Why?

Paula Vennells: Because I do not know the details of the situation.

Nadhim Zahawi: You used to provide the information and you have stopped providing it. Will you provide it going forward? Yes or no?

Paula Vennells: I am not aware that we stopped what we provided previously. Angela has been involved daily for the last two years. She sits on the working group alongside Ian at Second Sight. If there is a misunderstanding, I am happy to—

Nadhim Zahawi: Angela, will you provide it? If your CEO cannot answer, will you provide the prosecution files as requested by Ian Henderson?

Angela van den Bogerd: Mr Zahawi, as Ian said, we have previously provided them, and we have provided the information necessary for those investigations as a pack. So there are thousands of pieces of information already provided to Second Sight.

Nadhim Zahawi: But we have heard already that he has been obstructed from getting the legal files that you use internally, which he used to get before. That is what I have heard. Will you now commit to providing those files going forward?

Angela van den Bogerd: We provided them to Second Sight early in the investigation.

Nadhim Zahawi: Will you provide them?

Angela van den Bogerd: Just let me finish, please. We have been working with Second Sight over the last few weeks to get to an understanding of what we need to provide. We are working through those, and information has been flowing.

Nadhim Zahawi: So you do not understand what you need to provide?

Angela van den Bogerd: We have been providing what we agreed we would provide at the outset."

In this response, Post Office does not appear to understand the role of an investigator, which is to establish the facts, ask probing questions and to communicate concerns identified to the appropriate people. You do not have to be legally qualified in order to do this. 

At the request of the Parliamentary Select Committee, I provided further evidence justifying our need for access to the full prosecution files. In February 2015 I wrote:

a) The Prosecution knew that there was insufficient evidence to support a charge of Theft, but proceeded with it, nonetheless. 

b) The offer by the Prosecution to remove the charge of Theft was used to put pressure on the defendant to plead guilty to the False Accounting charges and to make good the alleged losses. 

c) The threat of proceeding with a charge of Theft was primarily to assist in the recovery of losses, and not in the interest of Justice. 

d) The Prosecution insisted that as part of the agreement to drop the charge of Theft, that no mention of alleged problems with the Horizon computer system would be made.

The new facts that have come to light as a result of examining a single complete legal file, have identified a number of issues that indicate: 

a) Possible misconduct by a Prosecutor on behalf of Post Office; and

b) A possible miscarriage of justice. 

In my view, this analysis of a single complete legal file, has demonstrated the benefit of doing so; particularly bearing in mind the stated objective of Post Office to thoroughly investigate possible miscarriages of justice.

Little did I know in 2015, that the defendant referenced (but anonymised) in this sample case, would become the lead appellant in the 23rd of April hearing by the Court of Appeal which resulted in 39 criminal convictions being overturned. 

I would like to close with a few words attributed (possible wrongly) to Edmund Burke:

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”

Second Sight went as far as it could, within the constraints of Non-Disclosure Agreements, to publicise our findings and our concerns. We said very publicly that we were concerned about the possibility of misconduct by prosecutors and miscarriages of justice.

It is disappointing that it took almost 9 years from when we first started work for these gross miscarriages of justice to be properly addressed.

There is much more that needs to be done and many questions that still to be answered. For example:

Was prosecution policy within Post Office and Royal Mail influenced by a desire to maximise value prior to an eventual sale or mutualisation proposal?

Did Post Office continue to destroy documents after the litigation hold instruction was issued in 2012?

Why were key documents such as the Clarke Advices and the Detica report not disclosed to Second Sight by Post Office? 

When were these documents disclosed to the Board of Post Office?

Why did no one take action in 2013 when Second Sight first raised many of our concerns in our Interim Report that was published by Post Office?

Why was the Select Committee not more effective in following through on their excellent work in 2015?

Was the failed ICL / Pathway project (Horizon’s predecessor system in 1998) a contributing factor to the bugs, errors and defects now identified?

Did the Board of Post Office approve the disastrous litigation strategy, including the recusal application in the Group Litigation Order (“GLO”) trial?

Did the 2 Government nominated directors on the Board of Post Office support or approve the approximately £130 million of legal costs incurred by Post Office in the GLO trial?

Was this regarded as value for money?

Was there a cover-up within Post Office and or Government of the disastrous decision making within Post Office?

I trust that these questions will be addressed in the statutory enquiry by Sir Wyn Williams, which is now underway.

Thank you very much."

Flora Page has already published her speaking notes for the same event here (titled "When Machines Go Wrong").

Paul Marshall's presentation contained many of the themes he expanded on in a previous talk to the University of Law on 4 June. I have reproduced the text of that talk here - and the page has been updated to include a link to the audio recording of the presentation.

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If you are interested in this story, I would be most grateful if you would buy a pre-sale copy of my forthcoming book, The Great Post Office Scandal: the fight to expose a multimillion pound IT disaster which put innocent people in jail, which will be published by Bath Publishing in October 2021. For more information, please click here.

Value of claims to Historical Shortfall Scheme revealed


The total amount of compensation being claimed by 2,200 applicants to the Post Office's Historical Shortfall Scheme has been revealed as £311m. It was this figure which prompted the CEO of the Post Office to say in April this year that "The Post Office simply does not have the financial resources to provide meaningful compensation." 

The Historical Shortfall Scheme was set up as a condition of the Bates v Post Office settlement agreement. It is not open to claimants in Bates v Post Office, nor is it open to those Postmasters who have or had criminal convictions. The application window was only open from May to August 2020. By 2021 the Post Office had confirmed to parliament the final number of claimants accepted onto the scheme was 2,400, which means the final compensation bill could be commensurately higher.

The £311m figure came to light in a BEIS (the government's business department) Partner Organisation Risk Analysis document from 2020, uncovered thanks to the tireless work of Eleanor Shaikh. It is now published here. The document also reveals that when announcing the scheme, the Post Office had privately budgeted £35m to cover it. The £311m figure appears to have been a complete surprise. Assessing the sum of claims, the document states: "There is a risk that this would impact POL's ability to operate as a going concern."

It also suggests the Post Office board still, by 2020, had absolutely no idea what the organisation it was running had been up to over the previous two decades. To get its estimates wrong by a factor of nine suggests the board is either still not being given correct information by its own departments, or the Post Office has not kept proper records. Either reason points to worrying levels of incompetence.

The government has since stepped in to underwrite the Historical Shortfall Scheme.

The same document bundle just published by BEIS on the back of Ms Shaikh's request also notes that due to a significant downturn in volumes, the Post Office's operating profit in 2020/2021 is likely to drop from an estimate of £90m to £10m. The Post Office's exposure to litigation has also been moved up from Medium/Possible to High/Possible. 

Given how many now-unconvicted Subpostmasters are in the process of preparing to sue the Post Office for blighting their lives, I would suggest the risk is now High/Probable, rather than High/Possible.

Who is responsible for this mess?

The initial failure lies in a business model which unfairly loaded the Post Office's technical and process risk onto powerless individual Subpostmasters, and then improperly used the criminal courts as a weapon of enforcement and menace. None of the people responsible for this strategy have been required to account for their actions.

There was also a significant moment in 2013 when the Post Office board, having set up the Complaint and Mediation Scheme, turned it into a legalistic war of attrition, in a manner described in Parliament a year later as "duplicitous."

We don't know who specifically is responsible for this. It coincided with the arrival of an "interim" General Counsel at the Post Office, Chris Aujard, who left just before the Complaint and Mediation Scheme was wound up. 

Whether he was instructed to run the scheme in the way he did, or whether he came up with the strategy is immaterial. The Post Office board signed it off, with Paula Vennells - chief executive at the time - ultimately responsible. Between 2013 and 2019, the Post Office did what it could to delay justice to the original group of complainants. This strategy failed miserably and incurred tens of millions of pounds in compensation and costs.

The precious hunt for profitability Vennells and her board were focused on between 2012 and 2019 has been more than cancelled out by the hundreds of millions of pounds in compensation the Post Office is now going to have to hand over via its Historical Shortfall Scheme, and, if the claimants are successful, the malicious prosecution claims.

It takes quite a special bunch of people to roll out a massive IT network which doesn't work, unfairly prosecute dozens, possibly hundreds of people in the criminal courts, cleave blindly to a ruinous litigation strategy, and then flounder about in a morass of compensation and further litigation without anyone facing any censure whatsoever. In fact, most of the people involved earned very significant sums whilst creating one of the biggest corporate disasters in modern history. Well done, everyone.

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If you are interested in this story, I would be most grateful if you would buy a pre-sale copy of my forthcoming book, The Great Post Office Scandal: the fight to expose a multimillion pound IT disaster which put innocent people in jail, which will be published by Bath Publishing in October 2021. For more information, please click here.

Sunday, 4 July 2021

Search

If you are reading this blog on a mobile device, you cannot access the navigation bar or search box which is available to desktop users, unless you scroll to the bottom and click on "View web version". This page is something of a get around, by putting the search box into a main page. 

The search function within blogger is actually very good, so just type a few key words and you'll hopefully find what you're looking for:

Thursday, 1 July 2021

31 new Subpostmaster appeals - 10 convictions certain to be quashed - Tim Brentnall's tale

Tim Brentnall
Ten more Subpostmasters whose cases are being readied for court have been told the Post Office will not be contesting their appeals.

One of those former Subpostmasters is Tim Brentnall (left), a 39 year old who took over the Post Office counter in his parents' shop in Roch in Pembrokeshire, when he was in his early twenties. 

Today Tim told me he was feeling "a huge mixture of emotions. Both elated that I've been vindicated after all these years but so hollow and upset." 

Tim was prosecuted for false accounting in 2010 over a £22,000 discrepancy at his branch. He was told that "no one else has these problems." 

Tim says he was threatened by the Post Office with a theft charge if he didn't "make good" the £22,000. His parents scraped it together from their life savings. As soon as he had given the Post Office the money, they prosecuted him for false accounting.

It didn't occur to Tim or his legal team to challenge the integrity of the Horizon data - the accounting IT system used by the Post Office. His solicitors and barrister advised him to plead guilty to stay out of jail. He did, and was given an 18 month suspended sentence with 200 hours community service. Tim had no idea that during 2010, the Post Office was prosecuting more than one Subpostmaster a week - they'd convicted 55 by Christmast that year. He thought he was the only one. 

"I'm so angry that they've done it to so many people, and not just myself." he told me "And the fact we've had to fight so hard. They've fought us every step of the way and thrown everything at us that they can. It feels to me they've tried every manoeuvre possible to try to bury this."

A difficult few years

Tim has always maintained his innocence. He was a claimant in the civil litigation, but whilst the case was ongoing, Tim's partner Steph was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Tim has focusing his energies on looking after Steph for most of the last four years (particularly last year, when Steph's cancer was found to have spread) and wasn't particularly engaged with the fallout from civil court case. When he saw his fellow Postmasters' convictions being quashed in April, he put in an application direct to the Court of Appeal. The quashing of his conviction is, as of yesterday, now a formality.

Tim and Steph

Tim is one of the "lucky" ones. There are 31 appellants in the latest cohort going through the Court of Appeal. The Post Office is resisting 15 of them on the basis that Horizon data was not essential to each prosecution. It is still deciding about three of them. The remaining three appear to be DWP prosecutions, despite at least one being Horizon-related. 

I asked the DWP for more information about these cases, including how many more Subpostmasters it might have prosecuted. The DWP refused to make any comment on the ongoing cases and told me it had destroyed all records relating to prosecutions more than six years old. 

When I challenged that with a Freedom of Information request it was confirmed. The DWP is adamant it doesn't hold on to information older than six years. 

This is odd because two of the DWP cases are being opposed, with one still uncertain. The evidence available to oppose those appeals must exist somewhere. It is possible the Post Office may be responsible. I have asked them to tell me what, if any, involvement they had in giving DWP prosecutors Horizon data at the time of the convictions, and what historical data might be being used now.

Neil Hudgell, the solicitor who is representing 30 of the 31 Subpostmasters (including Tim) in the latest round of appeals said:

"We are obviously very pleased on behalf of the 10 further clients whose names are now set to be cleared at the Court of Appeal. These are all people with very similar stories to those who have already quite rightly had their convictions quashed, and again includes some people who spent time in prison as a result of these wrongful convictions."

Mr Hudgell says he needs to examine why the Post Office is opposing the remaining 15, but can't do so meaningfully until he has full disclosure. This is expected to take several weeks.

Post Office board directly involved

The Post Office says their decisions were taken "following careful consideration of each case by the Post Office Board, including the Court of Appeal’s findings in their Judgment in April in relation to previous appeals."

This public, high level ownership of the decision-making process is very interesting. New fault-lines in the appeals process are obviously being drawn. This could lead to another battle royale at the Court of Appeal if Hudgells and their QC, Tim Moloney, believe there is enough evidence to persuade the court all their clients' convictions should be quashed.

Tim Brentnall spent his 200 hours community service working for Mind, the mental health charity. They were so impressed with how he handled people they employed him for the next six years. He still lives in Roch, which is a tiny village. It means he suffered a whispering campaign for years after his conviction - unable to go to his local pub because people would say he'd ripped off the Post Office. 

"When I think about what I've lost... the dream was I'd still be running the Post Office. We bought it so I could build the business and they just completely soured the whole thing."

The conviction has obviously affected his career. "After my work at Mind, there have been several jobs that I've applied for in that mental health or social work field that have just been turned down straight away. What the Post Office did to me in 2009 has had a hold on every single thing I've been trying to do since."

Even this year, when some locals saw he wasn't in the cohort of Subpostmasters whose convictions were overturned in April, they sneered at him, suggesting that because Tim hadn't got his appeal over the line he must have been guilty all along. In fact, he hadn't even applied.

Tim is still mystified as to how the Post Office investigators and prosecutors were ever allowed to get away with what they did.

"The more that you hear about these cases, I can't understand why the people in charge, morally, could do it to start with and then the people above them and the government have allowed them to do it."

Steph is continuing her cancer treatment and responding well, but she's not out of the woods yet. Tim got in touch because he wanted to put on the record his gratitude to his parents for helping him in the way they did and "everyone that stood by me for their support."

I'm really grateful to Tim and Steph for their time. Tim's never told his story before, having always been concerned that without formal confirmation of his innocence people might continue to cast aspersions. 

He should soon have it confirmed that he is, and always was, innocent of any crime, and should never have been prosecuted.

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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.