Thirty nine sub-postmasters won a historic legal battle to clear their names on Friday after judges quashed their criminal convictions in what has been described as the biggest miscarriage of justice in recent legal history.
The Criminal Court of Appeal on Friday overturned the convictions for theft and false accounting stretching back more than a decade after the sub-postmasters were prosecuted by the state-owned Post Office, whose faulty Horizon computer system led to financial shortfalls in branch accounts.
The Post Office took the sub-postmasters to court after insisting that they repay the shortfalls of thousands of pounds that were wrongly recorded by the IT system. The Post Office relied on evidence at trial from the Horizon system, which was subsequently found to have a number of bugs that created the discrepancies.
Friday’s ruling could pave the way for many of the other 700 sub-postmasters convicted between 2000 and 2013 on the basis of evidence from the Horizon system to challenge their criminal convictions. Six sub-postmasters had their magistrates court convictions overturned last year.
Handing down the court’s ruling on Friday, Mr Justice Timothy Holroyde said the court had concluded that the Post Office’s “failures of investigation and disclosure” had been “so egregious as to make the prosecution of any of the Horizon cases an affront to the conscience of the court”.
The organisation had effectively “steamrollered” over any sub-postmasters who raised concerns about the reliability of the Horizon computer system, he said.
“Defendants were prosecuted, convicted and sentenced on the basis that the Horizon data must be correct, and cash must therefore be missing, when in fact there could be no confidence as to that foundation,” he said quashing the criminal convictions of 39 sub-postmasters.
The Criminal Court of Appeal had been told during the appeal that the prosecutions ruined lives and led to “shame and humiliation” for those sub-postmasters who were wrongly jailed. Some suffered marriage break ups and others bankruptcy, while several sub-postmasters died as convicted criminals.
The appeal court heard that the Post Office failed to investigate problems with its Horizon computer system and to disclose critical evidence about software bugs to the sub-postmasters’ defence lawyers — making it impossible for them to get a fair trial.
The ruling was greeted with jubilation by sub-postmasters who have fought for more than a decade to clear their names.
Among those who had their convictions quashed on Friday was former sub postmaster Jo Hamilton. She had pleaded guilty to 14 counts of false accounting in 2008 after being prosecuted by the Post Office and received a 12 month community supervision order. Her criminal record has meant that she has been unable to even volunteer at her granddaughter’s school.
“While I’m over the moon that at long last I am going to get my conviction quashed, I feel there’s still a way to go to get real justice,” she said. “I personally will not give up fighting until there is a statutory inquiry and the people who allowed this to happen are held to account, just like we were. The difference being we hadn’t done anything wrong.”
Tim Parker, Post Office chair, said in a statement: “The Post Office is extremely sorry for the impact on the lives of these postmasters and their families that was caused by historical failures.
“We are contacting other postmasters and Post Office workers with criminal convictions from past private Post Office prosecutions that may be affected, to assist them to appeal should they wish. Post Office continues to reform its operations and culture to ensure such events can never happen again.”
The Court of Appeal upheld the convictions of three sub-postmasters who failed to have their convictions quashed because their prosecutions were not based on Horizon evidence.