Dozens of former subpostmasters who were convicted of theft, fraud and false accounting because of the Post Office’s defective Horizon accounting system have finally had their names cleared by the Court of Appeal.
Subpostmasters’ lives were “irreparably ruined” as they lost their jobs, homes and marriages after they were prosecuted by the Post Office – which knew the Fujitsu-developed IT system had “faults and bugs from the earliest days of its operation”, the Court of Appeal heard last month.
One former sub-postmaster, Rubbina Shaheen, was wrongly jailed for three months in November 2010.
She ended up living in a van after being forced to sell her house.
Lawyers representing 42 former subpostmasters said evidence of serious defects in the Horizon system was “concealed from the courts, prosecutors and defence”, in order to protect the Post Office “at all costs”.
Their convictions were referred to the court by the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) last year following a landmark High Court case against the Post Office.
The Post Office conceded that 39 of the 42 former subpostmasters should have their convictions overturned on the basis that “they did not or could not have a fair trial”.
But it opposed 35 of those 39 cases on a second ground of appeal, which is that the prosecutions were “an affront to the public conscience”.
Announcing the court’s ruling, Lord Justice Holroyde said the Post Office “knew there were serious issues about the reliability of Horizon” and had a “clear duty to investigate” the system’s defects.
But the Post Office “consistently asserted that Horizon was robust and reliable” and “effectively steamrolled over any subpostmaster who sought to challenge its accuracy”, the judge added.
The Court of Appeal also allowed the appeals on the basis that their prosecutions were an affront to justice.
Lord Justice Holroyde, sitting with Mr Justice Picken and Mrs Justice Farbey, said: “Post Office Limited’s 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.”
However, three of the former subpostmasters – Wendy Cousins, Stanley Fell and Neelam Hussain – had their appeals dismissed by the court.
Lord Justice Holroyde said the Court of Appeal had concluded that, in those three cases, “the reliability of Horizon data was not essential to the prosecution case and that the convictions are safe”.
In a statement after the ruling, Post Office chairman Tim Parker said: “The Post Office is extremely sorry for the impact on the lives of these postmasters and their families that was caused by historical failures.
“Post Office stopped prosecutions soon after its separation from Royal Mail a decade ago and has throughout this appeals process supported the overturning of the vast majority of convictions.
“We are contacting other postmasters and Post Office workers with criminal convictions from past private Post Office prosecutions that may be affected, to assist them to appeal should they wish.”
Post Office chief executive Nick Read said his organisation’s past failures had caused "deep pain".
“I am in no doubt about the human cost of the Post Office’s past failures and the deep pain that has been caused to people affected”, he said.
“Many of those postmasters involved have been fighting for justice for a considerable length of time and sadly there are some who are not here to see the outcome today and whose families have taken forward appeals in their memory. I am very moved by their courage."
Mr Read added that the Post Office must be "transformed" to provide "essential services" across the UK.
“The quashing of historical convictions is a vital milestone in fully and properly addressing the past as I work to put right these wrongs as swiftly as possible, and there must be compensation that reflects what has happened”, he said.
“In addition, since arriving at the Post Office 18 months ago, my focus has been on resetting the culture at the Post Office and forging a substantive partnership with our postmasters.
“We are determined that they must come first in everything we do because without them there is no Post Office.
“We must transform the Post Office so that it can continue to provide essential services in local communities across the UK.”