Written 12th January 2024 by Martha Odysseos
Whilst the scandal around the Post Office and its Horizon IT system has been ongoing for many years, the recent ITV drama, Mr Bates vs The Post Office, has most certainly brought about increased interest from the wider public and perhaps more significantly with those at the heart of government in Westminster. Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, has recently described it as one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in UK history.
What happened with the Post office and Horizon ?
The Post Office pursued and prosecuted hundreds of sub-postmasters and postmistresses between 1999 and 2015 for a variety of offences, including theft, fraud and false accounting. These prosecutions were brought forward based on information gathered from the Horizon IT system. It has since been shown that the system wrongly indicated that the post office branches operated by those being investigated had cash shortfalls. Relying on this erroneous information, the prosecuting authorities within the Post Office at that time brought proceedings against hundreds of individuals Many were prosecuted and convicted and this led to them losing their livelihoods and homes, with some even spending time in custody; worse still some took their own lives.
Many sub-postmasters also paid the alleged shortfalls to the Post Office from their own pockets, with many some recalling how they had to take out additional loans, borrow from friends and family or even cash in life savings which they had hoped would see them through retirement.
As a result of their convictions , a group of post office operators took their case to the High Court in 2019. The High Court ruled that their convictions were wrongful and that the Horizon IT system was at fault. This ruling was upheld on appeal in 2021 and the convictions of some of the workers were duly quashed.
In 2020, the Post Office acknowledged and apologised for what it called historical failings, however the scale of the injustice and the impact it had on so many people meant that this was far from the end of the story.
What is happening now with the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry?
An independent statutory public inquiry (“the Inquiry”) into this scandal began in 2021, led by retired High Court Judge, Sir Wyn Williams. The Inquiry has been and continues to gather evidence from postal workers, the government, the Post Office and others with the aim of being able to provide a public summary of the failings which impacted so many. The Inquiry will also consider whether or not lessons have been learned and appropriate changes made within the Post Office.
Following on from the recent increased publicity on the matter, the Metropolitan Police have now also confirmed that the Post Office is under criminal investigation over ‘potential fraud offences’.
It is worth noting that the Post office has the power to investigate and prosecute and as such do not need any police or CPS involvement. It was, therefore, their own investigations which led to the private prosecutions of these sub-postmasters.
Given that we now know that over 3,000 branch owner –operators were wrongly accused, with more than 900 being prosecuted, it is perhaps not surprising that there are calls for the Post Office to have its prosecutorial powers removed. As well as the over-reliance on the IT systems information, there are also well-founded concerns around disclosure failings, as well as, the aggressive and possibly financially incentivised approach of some of the investigators.
However, arguably the most significant event of the last week has been the government’s intervention. The Prime Minister has announced plans to pass a law that will overturn the convictions of all those convicted.
Whilst some may view such proposals as controversial, the government have indicated that this quite unprecedented intervention is intended to avoid the need for victims of the injustice to become involved in what would ordinarily be a potentially complex and lengthy legal process through the courts. That may be little consolation to those who have already gone through the ordeal of proceedings and imprisonment and certainly no consolation to the families of those who took their lives as a result of the debacle.
It is also widely acknowledged that this blanket approach may result in some properly convicted individuals having their convictions overturned and potentially even being compensated but it does appear as though those who are involved will be expected to sign a statement of innocence in order to allow for such anomalies and leave the door open to a fresh prosecution – presumably based on more reliable evidence if it were to exist.
We will watch with interest as to how the plans are implemented in real terms and how quickly those wrongly convicted receive justice.
What have we learned from the Post Office scandal?
Whilst the situation is far from over for all those affected by the Horizon IT scandal, this situation should serve as a reminder never to take things for granted nor to make assumptions about the accuracy of information no matter what the source. Systems and indeed people must be open to scrutiny and challenge especially when peoples’ livelihoods, freedom and in some circumstances their very lives depend on it.
Even with the most rigorous safeguards and back-up systems in place, those who face criminal or regulatory proceedings, especially in cases founded on the basis of digital material, must still be afforded the opportunity to properly and fairly defend themselves- it is a fundamental principle of our justice system.
The Post Office case also highlights the importance of obtaining professional legal advice when faced with investigation or prosecution. At Olliers, our lawyers have significant experience providing advice and assistance to those facing investigation and prosecution by the full spectrum of prosecution and regulatory authorities. We have particular expertise in advising during the early pre-charge stage and are well known and highly regarded for our proactive approach.
We are also able to assist those who may be called to appear as a witness or core participant in a public inquiry such as that which is being held in respect of the Post Office. Our lawyers have assisted clients in high profile inquiries including IICSA, Brook House, Manchester Arena and Grenfell and are able to advise and represent you during all stages of the process.
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Martha joined the firm in April 2021 after completing an internship at Olliers in the summer of 2020. She was initially a part of the Litigation Support team before starting her training contract in September 2021.