Court of Appeal quashes 39 Horizon convictions

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Funding for final compensation
(Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

The Court of Appeal today quashed 39 convictions related to the Post Office Horizon scandal. The cases were referred by the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) last year.

The court concluded that failures of investigation and disclosure by Post Office were “so egregious as to make the prosecution of any of the Horizon cases an affront to the conscience of the court.”

The court upheld the safety of convictions in three cases, of Wendy Cousins, Stanley Fell and Neelam Hussain, ruling that the reliability of Horizon data was not essential to the prosecution case.

The Post Office said it sincerely apologises for serious failures in its historical conduct of prosecutions of postmasters.

“The Post Office is extremely sorry for the impact on the lives of these postmasters and their families that was caused by historical failures,” Post Office chairman Tim Parker said.

“Post Office stopped prosecutions soon after its separation from Royal Mail a decade ago and has throughout this appeals process supported the overturning of the vast majority of convictions.”

Parker added that the Post Office is contacting other postmasters and Post Office workers with criminal convictions from past private prosecutions that may be affected, to assist them to appeal should they wish, after it identified several hundred prosecutions brought since the Horizon system was installed.

The CCRC has referred a total of 51 cases, four of them in January this year, to the Court of Appeal on grounds related to the Horizon IT system.

The first six former postmasters among them were formally acquitted in December by Southwark Crown Court.

The Court of Appeal has heard the appeals of 42 former postmasters prosecuted between 2003 and 2013. The court considered two grounds of appeal from the postmasters, one relating to the fairness of the trial process and the other arguing that it was an “affront to the public conscience for the appellants to face prosecution”

Post Office has accepted that the conviction may be held by the court to be unsafe on grounds amounting to the first abuse in all but three cases. It has however resisted the appeals on the second ground, except in four cases.

The court ruled in favour of postmasters on both grounds in 39 cases, concluding that all the convictions are unsafe.

“This has been a serious miscarriage of justice which has had a devastating impact on these victims and their families. Every single one of these convictions has clearly had a profound and life-changing impact for those involved,” CCRC chair Helen Pitcher, said.

“The Post Office has rightly acknowledged the failures that led to these cases and conceded that the prosecutions were an abuse of process. We sincerely hope that lessons will be learned from this to prevent anything similar happening elsewhere in the future.”

Earlier the High Court had ruled against the Post Office after over 550 sub-postmasters challenged the accusations of stealing by Post Office, saying the discrepancies were caused by faults in the Horizon IT system.

A week before the judgment, Post Office and claimant sub-postmasters have agreed to settle the long-running trial, and the firm has taken several measures to ‘reset its relationship’ with postmasters following the £58 million settlement.

These included the creation of two non-executive director roles in its board for serving postmasters and  a scheme for current and former sub-postmasters to claim shortfalls related to previous versions of the scandal-hit computer system Horizon.

Post Office has this week announced the appointment of two postmasters to its board this week.

“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,” Nick Readn Post Office chief executive, said.

“In addition, since arriving at the Post Office 18 months ago, my focus has been on resetting the culture at the Post Office and forging a substantive partnership with our postmasters. We are determined that they must come first in everything we do because without them there is no Post Office. We must transform the Post Office so that it can continue to provide essential services in local communities across the UK.”