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23 April 2021

Convictions of postmasters and postmistresses in Post Office IT scandal quashed

4 mins

The Court of Appeal has today cleared the convictions of 39 sub-postmasters and sub-post office workers involved in the Post Office IT scandal, correcting a miscarriage of justice that has lasted nearly 20 years.

Between 2003 and 2013, 42 postmasters and postmistresses were prosecuted by the Post Office and convicted of theft and fraud related offences after the Post Office installed the Horizon computer system, which later turned out to be flawed.

In its ruling today the court held that the Post Office Limited’s failures of investigation and disclosure, in respect of Horizon data used in prosecutions, prevented the appellants from challenging the reliability of the data and having a fair trial on the issue of whether that data was reliable.

But the court did not stop there, it went on to conclude:

‘…failures of investigation and disclosure were so egregious as to make the prosecution of any of the Horizon cases an affront to the conscience of the court. By representing Horizon as reliable, and refusing to countenance any suggestion to the contrary, POL effectively sought to reverse the burden of proof: it treated what was no more than a shortfall shown by an unreliable accounting system as an incontrovertible loss, and proceeded as if it were for the accused to prove that no such loss had occurred. Denied any disclosure of material capable of undermining the prosecution case, defendants were inevitably unable to discharge that improper burden. As each prosecution proceeded to its successful conclusion the asserted reliability of Horizon was, on the face of it, reinforced. Defendants were prosecuted, convicted and sentenced 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.”

Bindmans LLP acted for three of the appellants in the case:

  • Janet Skinner, who was imprisoned for nine months in 2007 over a shortfall of £59,175.39;
  • Tracy Felstead, who was imprisoned for six months in 2002 over a shortfall of £11,503.28;
  • Seema Misra, who was imprisoned for 15 months over a shortfall of £74,609.84.

It is extremely rare for the Court of Appeal to quash the conviction of an appellant on the basis that their prosecution amounted to an abuse of process. It is completely unprecedented for the Court of Appeal to quash the convictions of so many appellants on the basis that their prosecution was an affront to justice. This decision marks recognition of the single, largest known miscarriage of justice. To date, upwards of 900 sub-postmasters were prosecuted and convicted by the Post Office. The decision to quash the convictions of 39 of these sub-postmasters and sub-post office workers marks the beginning of a process whereby further miscarriages of justice are likely to come to light.

Katie Wheatley, Head of the Crime, Fraud and Regulatory team at Bindmans, said:

Prosecutorial independence and candour and full and timely disclosure are the bedrock of a fair criminal justice system; laid bare today are the catastrophic consequences of a prosecutor failing to investigate and disclose all relevant material to the defence, including that which may undermine the case against the accused.

Hester Cavaciuti, solicitor at Bindmans, who represented the appellants, said:

It has been a privilege to be involved in the resolution of a miscarriage of justice of such historic importance. I am thrilled for Janet, Seema and Tracy who have been carrying the burden of their convictions for such a long time. I am extremely pleased that their hard work and determination has paid off and that they have been vindicated today.

Bindmans LLP’s clients were represented in the Court of Appeal by counsel, Lisa Busch QC, Dr Sam Fowles and Olivia Davies, together with Katie Wheatley, Hester Cavaciuti and Harriet Fitzsimons of Bindmans LLP.

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