The landmark judgment handed down on Friday by the Court of Appeal vindicated an unprecedented number of people who were the victims of a terrible miscarriage of justice, with the UK Post Office at the centre of criticism.
39 former postmasters had their names cleared of any wrongdoing, after the Post Office chose not to challenge their appeal. They can now begin the process of bringing closure to an episode in their lives they should never have faced. The damning verdict of the appeal judges described their convictions as ‘an affront to the public conscience’. Their rebuke could not have been stronger, and it will serve the victims well if they choose to pursue civil remedies against the Post Office, Sky News shares.
The 39 join a number of others who have been cleared of wrongdoing, and with the Criminal Case Review Commission having referred other cases to the appeal court, and with more cases still to be reviewed, it is likely that more convictions will be deemed flawed.
What was Horizon? How long have these issues been known?
In December 2019, the Post Office agreed to settle 555 civil claims brought against it as a result of complaints about the Horizon post office accounting system, and has set up a scheme for historical claims made by those who weren’t party to the High Court proceedings, with reports of thousands of claims being made.
With the volume of cases under review, all of which having been brought as a result of failings in the Horizon accounting system introduced in 1999, there will be a clamour for answers as to how this could have come about. The judge in the civil proceedings indicated that there would be a referral to the Director of Public Prosecutions, due to concerns over evidence from employees of Fujitsu, Horizon’s developer. In addition, the Government has ordered an inquiry into the Horizon failings, which is due to report in the summer. Given the sheer scale of what has been unearthed, and the volume of people affected, claims for a public inquiry may be difficult to resist.
What is likely to happen next?
Friday’s result, whilst significant, does not mark the end of matters, and much is still to come. There will be a focus on what was known about the failings in the system, and whether there was a cover-up of evidence. There will also be questions regarding the decision to prosecute the number of cases brought before the courts, as there are likely to be common themes in many cases which challenged the prosecution evidence. It will be interesting to see whether there was a joined-up approach by prosecutors in bringing cases, as many will wonder whether this could all have been identified much sooner, and thus prevented the anguish suffered by all those affected.
The judgment is almost a bittersweet moment for the justice system, as it proves that wrongs can be righted, but raises questions as to how the system failed in the first place, and on such a scale. There may be some who know the answer, and if so, they may find themselves being held to account. Following news of the appeal court decision, the former chief executive of the Post Office, Paula Vennells, who was in office between 2012 – 2019, has announced that she is stepping down from her current boardroom roles given the media attention the news has attracted.
For those who have still to clear their name, or who have yet to start that process, this result will give them comfort in their fight, and hopefully shine a light at the end of a very long tunnel. For anyone who would like advice on their options, our team can provide expert advice on what to do next, and provide assistance in bringing proceedings.
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Solicitor in our White Collar Crime Defence Team