It is welcome news that judges have quashed the convictions of 39 sub-postmasters who were wrongly prosecuted by the Post Office for theft, fraud and false accounting between 2000 and 2014.
During this time, the Post Office prosecuted at least 700 postmasters, based on information from an inaccurate computer accounting system called Horizon.
Some postmasters went to prison following convictions for false accounting and theft, many were financially ruined and left with tarnished reputations, while others have since died.
The prosecutions were brought because of shortfalls in accounting highlighted by the Horizon system, which was introduced in 1999 to carry out tasks such as transactions, accounting and stocktaking.
However, as early as 2000, one sub-postmaster, Alan Bates, reported problems with the system but was ignored. In 2009, following numerous prosecutions, Alan Bates and others set up a campaign group on the issue called Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance (JFSA).
In 2012, following pressure from this group and others, the Post Office hired forensic accountants to conduct an independent inquiry into Horizon, which concluded that there were bugs and issues with the system.
Problems with the Post Office’s systems were also reported by numerous forensic accountants, including the author, who gave expert witness evidence in the various trials of individual sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses.
However, despite the evidence presented, no action was taken by the Post Office, which continued to assert that the Horizon system and its financial controls were “robust”.
Following the Court of Appeal’s latest judgement in favour of the wrongly convicted sub-postmasters, campaigners and their supporters have celebrated and those convicted are now free to pursue civil cases for malicious prosecution but, as one of the barristers who acted for the group said, money can never compensate the victims for what happened to them.
Commenting on the case, Roger Isaacs, Forensic Partner at Milsted Langdon, said: “If the Post Office had listened to what many forensic accountants had been saying for year including the report that it itself commission, the case would not have turned into the UK’s most widespread miscarriage of justice.
“Despite the forensic accountancy evidence, it seems that juries may have been swayed by the Post Office’s long-established reputation and concluded that it couldn’t possibly make unfounded allegations. Sadly, it now seems that that view may have been shared by prosecutors and even some members of the Post Office’s staff.
With the benefit of hindsight it is difficult to reconcile what happened in so many cases, with the paucity of the evidence that was presented by the prosecution. If there is a lesson to be learned it is the importance of listening to independent experts.”