Judges have quashed the convictions of 39 former postmasters after the UK’s most widespread miscarriage of justice.
They were convicted of stealing money, with some imprisoned, after the Post Office installed the Horizon computer system in branches.
The system was flawed and postmasters and postmistresses have spent years trying to clear their names.
Judges said the Post Office sought to reverse the burden of proof when prosecuting the postmasters.
Following the convictions – including theft, fraud and false accounting – some former postmasters went to prison, were shunned by their communities and struggled to secure work
Some lost their homes and even failed to get insurance owing to their convictions. Some have since died.
They always said the fault was in the computer system, which had been used to manage post office finances since 1999.
Among them was Janet Skinner, who ran a post office in Hull. She was imprisoned in 2007 for nine months over a shortfall of £59,000 – a case which she said “destroyed everything”. Like others, she said she had no idea other sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses were being prosecuted and convicted.
She was taken away from her two children to go to prison, and – after her release – had a job offer taken away owing to her criminal conviction.
At the Royal Courts of Justice in London, Lord Justice Holroyde said the Post Office “knew there were serious issues about the reliability of Horizon” and had a “clear duty to investigate” the system’s defects.
But the Post Office “consistently asserted that Horizon was robust and reliable” and “effectively steamrolled over any sub-postmaster who sought to challenge its accuracy”, the judge added.
The Court of Appeal also allowed the appeals on the basis that their prosecutions were an affront to justice – a decision that allows for the possibility of further claims for compensation against the Post Office.
The judgement was met with cheers from former postmasters outside court.
Those whose convictions have been quashed are Josephine Hamilton, Hughie Thomas, Allison Henderson, Alison Hall, Gail Ward, Julian Wilson, Jacqueline McDonald, Tracy Felstead, Janet Skinner, Scott Darlington, Seema Misra, Della Robinson, Khayyam Ishaq, David Thomas Hedges, Peter Anthony Holmes, Rubina Shaheen, Damien Owen, Mohammed Rasul, Wendy Buffrey, Kashmir Gill, Barry Capon, Vijay Parekh, Lynette Hutchings, Dawn O’Connell, Carl Page, Lisa Brennan, William Graham, Siobhan Sayer, Pauline Thomson, Tim Burgess, Nicholas Clark, Margery Williams, Tahir Mahmood, Ian Warren, David Yates, Harjinder Butoy, Gillian Howard, David Blakey and Pamela Lock.
‘The trauma will never leave them’
Investigative journalist Nick Wallis has followed this saga for years, reporting on the case for BBC Panorama and Radio 4.
“Just over 10 years ago I spoke on the phone to a man who was crying his eyes out,” he said.
“His pregnant wife, Seema Misra – the sub-postmaster at West Byfleet Post Office in Surrey – had been sent to prison for theft. He swore she was an innocent victim of the Post Office’s computer system, Horizon.
“After meeting dozens of sub-postmasters over the past decade I have been struck by the dignity and quiet anger they convey in interviews and conversation – emotions never stray far from the surface.
“There will be some jubilation at the quashing of so many convictions today, but the trauma, the loss of reputation and the years of financial hardship for the dozens of people who were prosecuted by the Post Office will never leave them.”
Post Office chief executive Nick Read said: “I am in no doubt about the human cost of the Post Office’s past failures and the deep pain that has been caused to people affected.
“Many of those postmasters involved have been fighting for justice for a considerable length of time and sadly there are some who are not here to see the outcome today and whose families have taken forward appeals in their memory. I am very moved by their courage.
“The quashing of historical convictions is a vital milestone in fully and properly addressing the past as I work to put right these wrongs as swiftly as possible and there must be compensation that reflects what has happened.”
In three additional cases – those Stanley Fell, Wendy Cousins and Neelam Hussain – the judges ruled the convictions were not based on Horizon evidence, so their appeals against conviction failed.
What is the Horizon computer scandal?
The Horizon system, developed by the Japanese company Fujitsu, was first rolled out in 1999 to some post offices to be used for a variety of tasks including accounting and stocktaking.
But from an early stage it appeared to have significant bugs which could cause the system to misreport, sometimes involving substantial sums of money.
Horizon-based evidence was used by the Post Office to successfully prosecute 736 people.
But campaigners fought a long and series of legal battles for compensation in the civil courts, which have been followed by referrals by the Criminal Cases Review Commission.