Friday, 2 October 2020

Major Developments in the Post Office Horizon Trial - most appeals will be uncontested; Scotland involved more than thought.

It's been a while since I wrote about the Horizon Trials, the group litigation in which 550 former Postmasters took Post Office Ltd to court over what they saw as false prosecutions and persecutions to recover alleged cash shortfalls which were in the main simply computer accounting problems.

The trials ended in mediation last December after which the judge produced his damning verdict on Post Office and Fujitsu, the system suppliers.

Apart from a few later developments as POL attempts to 'put things right' for any postmasters not involved in that litigation but who may have had to pay back 'missing' money, and attempts by postmasters and politicians alike to get the government (as the total owner and funder of POL) to actually take responsibility for the scandal, there hasn't been much to write about - until this week.

By coincidence today is International Wrongful Conviction Day!

Criminal Convictions Review Commission

We already knew that the CCRC was in the process of reviewing some of the cases but held back from making a decision pending the finalisation of the trials.  When they were suddenly curtailed by the mediation, CCRC announced that there were 47 cases under consideration for referral to the Court of Appeal.  Post Office Ltd had said that they were looking closely at the background to these cases to determine their (POL's) stance - ie, whether they would challenge the appeals.

Today they announced that will not be contesting 44 of the 47 convictions referred back to the Court of Appeal and Crown Courts by the Criminal Cases Review Commission in March and June of this year.

That means that 44 convicted Subpostmasters are on significant step further along the road to having their convictions formally quashed. Included are Jo Hamilton - convicted in 2008 on a false accounting plea rather than fighting a theft charge which would result in a custodial sentence - and Seema Misra who was taken to jail on her son's birthday while pregnant in 2010, having already had the case hanging over her for five years. 

After years of relative silence the mainstream media are now covering this in detail. Not only was it 'above the fold' on the BBC UK news webpage, it was there on the base news webpage which includes all world news. It also featured on the BBC TV news report at 6 pm (and probably all day).   Doubtless the rest of the media will also cover it, having let a few journalists and organs - Private Eye, Computer Weekly, and Nick Wallis - take on the fight for the last 20 years.


Scotland IS affected

There were a couple of reasons why I thought there were few cases in Scotland. One is a map that had been compiled showing the locations of all affected post offices that its compiler knew of (which I now can't find).  The other was because journalist Nick Wallis said that POL didn't have the same powers of prosecution in Scotland's (different) legal system.  Whilst that is partly true, this is what Nick wrote earlier this week.


 

The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission has written to 73 former Subpostmasters suggesting they might want to request the SCCRC reviews their criminal convictions.

According to the BBC a letter has gone out to 73 addressees stating:

"We think that it is possible that your case is one [where Horizon evidence was used]. If it is, we would like to make sure that you have the chance to apply to us. The Post Office identified your case as a Scottish prosecution during the relevant period (from 1999) in which they may have been involved."

According to the chap from the SCRCC quoted on the BBC website:

"We're talking about 73 cases which may be affected - not definitely - but we are fairly sure the data is not complete, so it's entirely possible there may be other people involved. The 73 individuals, so far as we know, were people convicted in Scotland. There's a whole range of convictions involved, but in the main they were for fraud and false accounting. Some of them suffered penalties of imprisonment, the majority received community sentences and fines."

This means I have been labouring under two misapprehensions for the last ten years.

a) there weren't very many Subpostmaster prosecutions in Scotland

b) all private prosecutions have to be scrutinised by the Procurator Fiscal (the Scottish equivalent of the Crown Prosecution Service).

I thought point a) because I had tried to find some cases in Scotland and couldn't. 

I thought point b) might be the reason for point a) ie because the Post Office knew it would have to get its prosecutions past the Procurator Fiscal it didn't often try. Or it did try and the Procurator Fiscal told the Post Office on various occasions where to stick it.

Turns out both presumptions were wrong. 

a) 73 convictions in Scotland where Horizon evidence may have been used is a lot.

b) the Procurator Fiscal doesn't give the nod to private prosecutions, it takes them on. 

Not knowing this till today is just plain ignorance on my part, but what it means is that all Subpostmaster prosecutions in Scotland (which were referred directly by the Post Office to the SCRCC) were handled by the state - and therefore had some kind of external scrutiny.

I must admit to still being a little confused by the statement from the SCRCC about false accounting as I was led to believe that in Scotland there is no crime called false accounting - it falls under the wider catch-all of fraud. 

Anyway - the fact the SCRCC has taken the step of contacting all 73 people referred to it by the Post Office is interesting. It could be that 72 of those convictions are bang to rights. I still haven't heard from or spoken to any Subpostmaster with a criminal conviction from a Scottish court who is claiming miscarriage of justice. I have been made aware today that one such person definitely exists, but cannot yet bring themselves to go public.

In a way that doesn't matter. What does matter - to paraphrase someone quite close to this story - is that "if the Post Office have sent one innocent person, just one, to prison, they should be crawling towards them on their knees to beg their forgiveness."

 

Government review or enquiry?

The government has announced retired judge Sir Wyn Williams will chair its review into the Post Office Horizon scandal. The Williams Inquiry is active as of today.  So although the government refuses to bow to pressure from politicians, journalists, and postmasters alike for a judge-led Inquiry (with associated powers), they are now calling this an Inquiry, rather than a review.  But it has not met with any more approval or support - read more here.

Quite a week!



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