Five more longstanding convictions relating to the Post Office Horizon scandal were today overturned at the Court of Appeal – including a case which lawyers say clearly demonstrates how ‘mounting evidence’ that prosecutions were unsafe was ignored.
Today’s hearing takes the number of people to have their convictions quashed to 80, with the Post Office now facing compensation claims on behalf of those affected seeking damages for malicious prosecution.
Included in this afternoon’s cases was that of Grant Allen, who was sentenced to a 12 month community order and 200 hours unpaid work in 2013 over a shortfall of just over £13,000 in the accounts at the Post Office he ran in Winsford, Cheshire.
Like hundreds of others, he could not work out why his system was showing a shortfall in the figures, and despite raising concerns over Horizon, he was pressured into pleading guilty in court to a charge of fraud by false representation.
In documents disclosed as part of his appeal against his conviction, emails were unearthed which showed concerns were raised over the reliability of the Horizon system by legal representatives of Fujitsu, the company which manufactured the tills and developed the faulty accounting software.
The case was also pursued against Mr Allen despite the Post Office having at the time hired a forensic accounting company, Second Sight, to investigate the Horizon system – an investigation which ultimately concluded that it could cause unexplained shortfalls.
Requests for disclosure of that review by Mr Allen’s solicitors – two months before he was sentenced – were refused by lawyers acting for the Post Office.
Post Office ignored ‘mounting evidence over unreliability of Horizon’
Hudgell Solicitors has now helped 68 people have convictions overturned.
Solicitor Neil Hudgell, who leads the firm’s representation of former subpostmasters, said: “When the first group of subpostmasters had their convictions overturned at the Court of Appeal in April of last year Lord Justice Holroyde said it was clear that the Post Office knew there were serious issues about the reliability of Horizon and that they effectively steamrolled over any subpostmaster who sought to challenge its accuracy.
“That was certainly the case with the prosecution of Grant Allen. His case clearly demonstrates how the Post Office ignored mounting evidence over the unreliability of the Horizon system and simply carried on taking people to court and destroying lives.
“This was all in the pursuit of profits as sentences came hand in hand with court orders forcing subpostmasters to pay thousands of pounds of alleged shortfalls. This led to people selling homes, or borrowing off family members and essentially being left with nothing.”
Mr Allen, 53, who now lives in Somerset, attended court with his wife and said he wanted answers as to why the Post Office acted with ‘such maliciousness.’
He said: “I now want to know how this was able to happen to so many people, why it happened, and who knew what was going on. My question is will there be prosecutions of the people who did this to us?
“At the time I was taken to court it had already been reported that that the Horizon system was being investigated due to concerns and when my lawyers spoke to the legal team for the Post Office they were told the investigation didn’t affect my case and they just ploughed on.
“I’d been losing money at the Post Office and had no idea why we were short. I also didn’t have the money to put back in and make up the shortfall, so when auditors arrived I just said ‘we’re down’.
“It has had a huge impact on our lives. We’ve struggled ever since and we had to move home and live with my mother-in-law. I’ve only really ever been able to get agency work since, and I’ve not seen my sister in Los Angeles for years as I’ve not been allowed into the country due to my criminal record.
“I am glad the appeal process has unearthed evidence as to what happened with regards my prosecution and how the Post Office acted with such maliciousness. I hope it helps everybody in their cases for compensation.”
Subpostmasters prosecuted despite raising concerns over system
Others to have convictions overturned this afternoon included Robert Boyle, 73, who was handed a 12 months sentence, suspended for two years, 100 hours unpaid work and tagged in November 2011 when taken to Nottingham Crown Court over an accounts shortage of £11,790.
He had raised concerns over Horizon throughout his interviews and had put his house on the market as he knew the shortages would not stop. He was intending on using the proceeds from the sale to make good the shortfalls before auditors arrived and he was prosecuted.
Also clearing her name was Duranda Clarke, 65, who was the branch manager of Thaxted Sub Post Office in north-west Essex.
She was sentenced to six months, suspended for two years, and ordered to carry out 150 hours unpaid work in July 2010 over a shortfall of £36,100 in her books. Her concerns over Horizon, and insistence that no money had been taken, were also ignored.
Richard Hawkes, 75, had his conviction from 2005 overturned, having been taken to Norwich Crown Court when a shortage of just over £11,000 was investigated by auditors at his post office in Tacolneston, south Norfolk.
He was convicted on five counts of false accounting and sentenced to 120 hours of unpaid work. He had called for an audit himself as he was concerned about the unexplained shortfall and denied taking any money and stressed that he believed something was wrong with the system.
Jack Smith, 78, also had his conviction quashed, having been sentenced to 60 hours unpaid work in 2004 over a shortage of £6,700 at the Post Office he ran in Manchester. At the time he had been looking to re-mortgage his house to make good the losses.
Last Friday, at Southwark Crown Court, Nalini Joshi, who ran a post office in Chatteris, Cambridgeshire, had her conviction of false accounting from December 2001 quashed, having been prosecuted over a shortfall of just over £6,100. She was sentenced to 120 hours unpaid work, to pay costs of £1163.25 and compensation of £6191.88 to the Post Office.
Mr Hudgell said today’s cases again highlighted the need for full compensation settlements to be agreed as quickly as possible.
“Three of our clients today are now in their seventies and have lived with these convictions against their name for well over a decade, some close to 20 years,” he said.
“They deserve to be fully compensated as quickly as possible and should not be forced to wait a day longer than necessary. We are continuing to work hard on their behalf to ensure that is the case.”