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A Very British Case: Postmasters and Miscarriages of Justice

British justice is a splendidly odd animal. Its miscarriage is one of those wonders of institutional repetition. When textbooks are written on the subject, one will feature prominently. On April 23 this year, the convictions of 39 former sub-postmasters were quashed by the criminal division of the Court of Appeal. They had been accused, and convicted, for theft and dishonesty after the UK Post Office installed the wonky wonder of the Horizon IT system.

There were figures such as Seema Misra, convicted for stealing £74,000 in cash from the Post Office branch under her stewardship in West Byfleet in 2010. At the time, the press delighted in calling her the “pregnant thief”. Her husband was assaulted by locals. Della Robinson, who ran the Dukinfield, Greater Manchester Post Office, could not account for £17,000 by 2012. She was suspended, reported to the police and faced a community service sentence.

The reason for their convictions lay in the accounting nightmare produced by the Horizon system. It had ominous beginnings, growing up from a contract between the computer company ICL, the Post Office and the Benefits Agency, all part of what were termed private finance initiatives (PFI). Developed by Japanese company Fujitsu, Horizon featured a swipe card system for paying pensions and benefits via the counters of Post Office branches. The venture proved calamitous, ailed by chronic mismanagement, weaknesses in the technology and general human incompetence. The cost of that endeavour to the British taxpayer: £700 million.

Refusing to wipe the slate clean, the Post Office beefed up the Horizon project, using it to convert accounting done through paper format into an electronic system. Over time, this made it the largest IT contract in Europe not connected with the military. But the stench refused to go away. “Serious doubts over the reliability of the software remained,” warned the Post Office board of directors in their minutes in September 1999.

Glitches duly mounted. Variations in revenue in some branches were noted. Two months after Horizon began operating, the Post Office branch in Craig-y-Don in Wales showed up a “variance” totalling £6,000. In time, these proliferated. In some cases, sub-postmasters, seeing these errors as not occasioned by computer error but their own, sought to cover revenue discrepancies with their own resources. Their contracts did mention that shortfalls be covered in instances of “carelessness or error.”

Between 2000 and 2014, the Post Office, with witch-hunting zeal, prosecuted a stunning 736 sub-postmasters, seeking convictions for false accounting and theft. Many were financially ruined. A number took to addiction, suffered ill-health and premature death. The sheer number facing charges raised an obvious question: how could there have been so many copy-cat crimes perpetrated by supposedly upstanding workers? (The Post Office itself admitted to investing time identifying and recruiting appropriate candidates.) The more troubling, and logical reason: the continuing, near manic refusal to acknowledge the gremlins in the Horizon system.

The sub-postmasters fought back. In December 2019, the Post Office agreed to settle with 555 claimants, accepting that it had previously erred in its “dealings with a number of postmasters,” agreeing to pay £58m in damages, with claimants receiving a £12 million share after legal fees.

Battle that year was also waged in the High Court through several trials. The Post Office, remarkably, attempted to tar the presiding judge Sir Peter Fraser in one case with the brush of bias, suggesting he step down. The failed effort to recuse him had arisen because of a previous ruling that over 500 sub-postmasters had been wrongly held responsible for Horizon’s accounting bungles. In another of Justice Fraser’s judgments handed down in December 2019, the Post Office was accused of showing “simple institutional obstinacy or refusal” in considering “any possible alternatives to their view of Horizon, which was maintained regardless of the weight of factual evidence to the contrary.” Reality was ignored. “It amounts to the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the earth is flat.”

The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) proceeded to refer 42 sub-postmaster cases to the Court of Appeal. The judges were charged with considering whether the prosecutions had been an abuse of court process and whether the convictions were unsafe. The salient consideration was whether the Horizon accounting system, already damned by Fraser, was reliable or not.

Image from newseu.cgtn.com

To the last, the Post Office, rather than conceding in full error, fought. It did concede that 39 of the 42 former sub-postmasters “did not or could not have a fair trial.” But in 35 of those 39 cases, it objected to the claim that the prosecutions were “an affront to the public conscience.”

In the criminal division of the Court of Appeal, Lord Justice Holroyde and his fellow judges found the “failures of investigation and disclosure were in our judgment so egregious as to make the prosecution of any of the ‘Horizon cases’ an affront to the conscience of the court.” The Post Office had effectively reversed the burden of proof by firstly assuming that the Horizon system was reliable and placing the onus upon the sub-postmasters to show why shortfalls had been registered. “Denied any disclosure of material capable of undermining the prosecution case, defendants were inevitably unable to discharge that improper burden.” Their prosecutions, convictions and sentences were pursued “on the basis that the Horizon data must be correct, and cash must therefore be missing, when in fact there could be no confidence as to that foundation.”

The snarling ugliness of conduct by the Post Office was laid bare. It refused to comply with its own obligations when prosecuting the sub-postmasters using Horizon data. It doggedly insisted that the sub-postmasters “make good all losses and could lose their employment if they did not do so.” This was all done despite the selection of those very same individuals as trustworthy occupants of their positions. The Post Office also dismissed claims that the shortfalls had arisen because of “an error or bug in the system.” Internal documentation dealing with the explanation by one sub-postmaster that a system error had occurred was contemptuously swatted as “jumping on the Horizon bandwagon.”

Of the 42 original appellants, only three – Wendy Cousins, Stanley Fell and Neelam Hussain – failed to achieve their aim. Their convictions were found to be safe, as “the reliability of Horizon data was not essential to the prosecution case.” For the rest, a grotesque, wearing chapter of British injustice had been reversed. An unquestioning faith and dogma, alloyed with some venality, had been repudiated. Sadly, the Post Office executives, board members and those at Fujitsu, remain at large, ready for the next erring.

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7 comments

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  1. Harry Lime

    Stuart ‘Robodebt’ Robert is winging his way to old Blighty as we comment,with a firm view of employing this Horizon shambles in his ongoing quest to be this country’s most consistent government handicap.Admittedly,the competition is fierce,but the name alone should be attractive to Stuie’s mate,the Rev.Footinmouth.

  2. Arnd

    Between 2000 and 2014, the Post Office, with witch-hunting zeal, prosecuted a stunning 736 sub-postmasters, seeking convictions for false accounting and theft.

    I’m astounded – ASTOUNDED!! – that none – NOT A SINGLE ONE – of those persecuted did go postal themselves.

  3. Canguro

    HL, I take it that this is one of those overseas junkets politicians indulge in as ‘educational excursions’, and I guess it fits the LNP’s weird logic processes that the Horizon IT system needs scrutinising. The devil’s in the detail though… who will be consulted? UK Post Office management and their team of computing whizkids, or the sub-postmasters?

    Pardon the scepticism, but Stuie doesn’t strike me as a man for learning from his mistakes, given his various fingers in a succession of clusterfucks.

    Robomans got form when it comes to going against the norms of public behaviour, but perhaps as another Pentecostal he feels that God will forgive him his excesses, such as the ~$38,000 internet bill claimed from the taxpayers, or his breaches of commercial law and the Constitution, or his behaviour that had him hauled before the Qld Crime & Corruption Commission, or his inappropriate appearance in China at a signing deal for an Australian mining company and a Chinese partner.

    I suppose he could be granted one act of rationality, given the deepening pool of miasma enveloping the federal government… why not get as far away as possible?

    Distractions beckon. Major-General Adam Findlay has asked the 58,000 members of the ADF to gird their loins and prepare to enter into ‘the valley of hell’ in anticipation of taking on the 2.2 million members of the Chinese PLA. Seriously, you couldn’t make this shit up. I used to think that cognitive dissonance was reserved for people with verifiable neurolgical pathologies, but now I see it’s become the norm.

  4. Andrew J. Smith

    Maybe the system did what was intended aka Thomas Frank’s ‘The Wrecking Crew’ where Anglo radical right libertarian ideology both profits from the public sector, hollows out expertise and can then lead onto merging or closing down a public agency…. under the guise of economic efficiencies; we have seen how that works when attempting to deal with Covid…..

    Remember, the IPA locally and IEA in UK are in the US Koch Atlas Network, with one stated aim or wish being the closure of the post office; remember Trump too tried a similar number on US Post.

  5. Harry Lime

    Canguro,it’s only an easily imagined hypothetical.

  6. RomeoCharlie29

    $58 m in damages awarded and the claimants got $12m, lawyers the rest. That seems fair!

  7. wam

    This was an awfully sad read, dr binoy, with governments and companies, with no regard for collateral damage, situations like this can only continue.
    Computer technology has a system controller, a worker and a customer. When a machine removes the humanity from interaction, it is advantageous for one of the three, may be advantageous for two and rarely, if ever, advantageous for all three.
    Who remembers paying the rates? Then just pass the money, get a receipt and go. Now, we stand whilst a worker gets RSI before you commit to the banks by tapping?
    My youngest grandkid is 13 and is in the state team. When the got to the airport to come home, the plane was taken out of service. There were 6 teams of children stranded for the 6 hour delay. Should have been no problems except the airport is cashless leaving the cardless out of the system and the banks and power companies in control. Trust banks, after the royal commission??????
    Cannot imagine the trauma when the pokies get cashless? Although, as I have no cards, beyond diner’s club, and am a pokies addict, the conflict will be a real ‘to be or not to be’ ie cardless or cardy?

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