“I’ve got to see this through for Julian and clear his name because he is no longer here to fight for justice himself.”
Four years after losing her husband to bowel cancer, and 12 years after he was convicted of false accounting by the Post Office, 65-year-old Karen Wilson is hopeful that she is on the brink of finally winning her battle.
Julian was one of hundreds of sub-postmasters across the UK who suffered due to the Post Office Horizon scandal.
It saw potentially as many as 900 prosecuted and jailed for crimes including theft and false accounting as a result of errors in an IT system used by Post Office branches across the UK for two decades.
In 2008 Julian was convicted of false accounting over an unexplained shortfall in excess of £27,000 at his branch and was ordered to complete 300 hours community service.
For the rest of his life, until dying of cancer in 2016, he campaigned to uncover the truth.
He was one of the founding members of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA), a campaign group which finally exposed the failings of the Horizon system by winning a High Court case against the Post Office last December.
It was ruled that Horizon had a number of “bugs, errors and defects” which caused “discrepancies” in sub-postmasters’ branch accounts, and that there was a “material risk” that shortfalls in branch accounts were caused by the software.
It was a victory which finally saw the scales of justice start to swing the way of former sub-postmasters, opening the door to challenge long-standing convictions.
It was a victory, however, that Julian never saw. Nor will he ever know the final outcome of his wife’s legal bid to clear his name through the courts.
“I attended every day of that High Court case and took a picture of Julian with me, and his tie, because that was something he started and that verdict proved to the whole world that he had been right from the very first day. I have carried that with me since and always will no matter what happens,” Karen says.
“He knew it was the system right from the start but nobody would listen. Nobody wanted to listen. Now I have to see this through and have his conviction overturned. I have to clear his name and I won’t stop until that has happened.”
Crucial day in campaign on Friday as legal teams set out position
Karen is hoping that this Friday will be the day that she finally gets the news she has battled so hard for.
Julian’s case is one of 47 which have been referred to the Court of Appeal by the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) to consider possible miscarriages of justice.
The Post Office must inform the court, and Karen’s legal team at Hudgell Solicitors, of its current position with regards to the cases under review.
It could see the Post Office decide not to contest appeals – paving the way for convictions to finally be overturned by the Court of Appeal.
Alternatively, it could continue to seek that convictions are upheld.
Karen’s solicitor, Neil Hudgell, who is representing 34 of the 47 people whose cases have been referred to the Court of Appeal, says it’s a day when the Post Office can ‘finally do the right thing’.
“Convictions such as Julian’s should be overturned as they were entirely unsafe given the accepted failings of Horizon, there being no evidence of any money being taken, and the collective evidence of many people who say they were placed under significant duress to plead guilty to crimes they had not committed,” he said.
“Friday is a significant day. It is a day when the Post Office has an opportunity – for pretty much the first time in this entire scandal – to do the right thing. If they don’t, it will simply strengthen our resolve to fight for justice.”
For Karen, it could be the most significant day since she lost her husband.
“I’ve took the day off work because I need to be in the right frame of mind for whatever we are told,” she says.
“I’m not getting my hopes up, because so far the Post Office have made every step of this difficult, but if they were to say they were not contesting the appeal to overturn Julian’s conviction it would be the biggest thing I’d ever done for him to see this through.
“What happened to us destroyed our lives. It overtook our lives. It is appalling what happened to so many people.”
Accounts problems arose despite ‘meticulous’ running of Post Office
Karen describes Julian as ‘meticulous’ in his running of the Post Office, which they bought in Astwood Bank, Worcestershire, for £125,000 back in 2001. After a profitable first couple of years, he started experiencing troubles with the Horizon system.
“Julian could account for every penny so when things started to go wrong with the accounting system he spotted it straight away and was on to the support line asking for assistance,” said Karen.
“There would be issues with it showing cheques which hadn’t been taken, and then there would be unexplained shortfalls. These were only small at first so he’d take money out of the retail side – which was our money – and put it into the Post Office. It was us who were losing out to balance the books.
“The next thing it would show it was £3,000 short, or cash amounts would alter between the final amount at the end of the night to the first thing in the morning, when there had been no transactions at all.
“Julian called the Post office and said there must be a third party on the system and asked for it to be investigated, but they reassured him it would ‘put itself right’.”
Karen says constant issues and an increasing unexplained shortfall played more and more on her husband’s mind, so much so that one Saturday morning he left all the shutters down on the Post Office and told her ‘I can’t do this anymore’,
When auditors finally arrived he was ‘delighted’ as he believed the issues would finally be resolved.
At the time the accounts had a shortfall in excess of £27,000, and Julian handed over nine years’ worth of accounts for the auditors to look through.
“They suspended him immediately and brought in people to run the Post Office temporarily. Then the fraud squad turned up at our house and searched the whole property,” Karen explained.
“They were asking things like ‘where’s the money, where’s the car and where have you been on holiday, but again Julian handed over all of our personal accounts and business accounts as he knew there was nothing to find.
“He was still of the mind that all would be sorted and that we’d go back to running the Post Office, but then we got a call telling us to get a solicitor as he was going to be questioned under caution.
“When he came back from that interview he told me they’d been trying to bully him into saying he’d taken the money, saying things to him like it would be easier if he just admitted it.
“Then the Post Office took out a confiscation order on the business, our house, our cars and everything. We had nothing to live on and when Julian asked how we were supposed to get by they told him to ‘use the money you’ve stolen’.”
The couple’s only option to survive was to sell the Post Office for just £62,000. They used the money to pay back £33,000 to the Post Office, including legal costs, and had to borrow from Karen’s mum and dad to pay their mortgage and avoid losing their home.
Convicted and made to clean graveyards with criminals
A year later Julian faced court and was told his only option was to plead guilty to false accounting, as he was told that would prevent him from going to prison.
“They dropped the charge of theft because there was no evidence of Julian having taken any money, because he hadn’t, but he was frightened into thinking that if he continued to deny everything he’d be found guilty and jailed. He said to me he simply couldn’t risk going to prison,” said Karen.
“He was given 300 hours community service and he used to have to go out cleaning graveyards with other criminals. It was heart-breaking seeing my husband, who had done nothing wrong, having to do that.
“He couldn’t get another job so we were living off my wage and money we borrowed money from my mum and dad. I even went out and sold every piece of jewellery that Julian had bought me to raise a few hundred pounds. That upset him.
“We had nothing. Then in 2016 Julian was diagnosed with bowel cancer. I remember looking across at him one day and he was just sat staring. I said what are you thinking and he just shrugged.
“I can’t believe the cruelty of the Post Office and how it has destroyed so many lives. My dad died in 2010, then I lost my mum in 2012 and Julian four years ago.
“I’ve always been determined to stay positive though and battle on. I’ve lost too much to be negative now, and Julian lost too much too. I’ll keep fighting for him all the way.”