Post Office employees were wrongly prosecuted by the company as a direct result of it covering up software bugs in its Horizon IT system, the Court of Appeal in England has said as it quashed 39 convictions this morning.
Those 39 convictions were obtained by the Post Office's in-house lawyers who ignored their own barristers' advice that the institution's behaviour was trampling over established prosecutorial codes intended to promote fairness and honesty.
Lord Justice Holroyde said that the one-time state monopoly had, by representing Horizon as reliable, "effectively sought to reverse the burden of proof," leading to criminal defendants having to prove their innocence instead of the Post Office showing they were guilty. Its lawyers compounded this by withholding evidence from courts and defence lawyers alike – evidence which clearly showed the Post Office and Fujitsu knew Horizon wasn't generating accurate accounting records.
Each prosecution challenged in the Court of Appeal over the past year relied on data from the Horizon business management platform supplied by Fujitsu. This data, called "ARQ data" by the court, was a "complete and accurate record of all keystrokes made" on Horizon by sub-postmasters and their branch office staff.
Yet ARQ data was not often made available in the Post Office's Crown Court prosecutions, leading to unjustifiable convictions and coerced guilty pleas.
Wrongly deprived of evidence needed to show that the Post Office's cases against them were flawed, many sub-postmasters pleaded guilty in the hope of getting reduced sentences rather than maintaining their innocence at court. Many also wanted to avoid the wrath of judges who had been told they were unrepentant thieves and false accounters.
Holroyde, giving the Court of Appeal's judgment today, referred to an earlier civil High Court judgment from Mr Justice Fraser, who savaged the Post Office's claims that Horizon was sound.
"Fraser J referred to two particular bugs, known as the Callendar Square bug and the Receipts and Payments Mismatch ('RPM') bug," said Lord Justice Holroyde. "In his 'Common Issues' judgment at , he had described the RPM bug as one of the bugs in respect of which contemporaneous internal documents showed 'at least to some degree, an awareness of Horizon problems within the Post Office itself over a number of years'."
That RPM bug was found to be affecting 40 branches back in 2010, when Post Office prosecutors were jailing their own employees for accounting shortfalls generated by Horizon. Indeed, the court found today that even the Post Office itself didn't believe that sub-postmasters "were exploiting the bug intentionally."
Yet, to prevent their despicable behaviour coming to light, the Post Office vowed to press on regardless with prosecutions.
Fujitsu was complicit
The Court of Appeal found that Fujitsu's involvement was just as deep as the Post Office's. Holroyde found that the company "had the ability and facility to insert, inject, edit or delete transaction data or data in branch accounts, to implement fixes in Horizon that had the potential to affect transaction data or data in branch accounts or to rebuild branch transaction data, all without the knowledge or consent of the SPM [sub-postmaster] in question."
If Fujitsu injected a transaction into a branch account, "this would look as though the SPM had done it."
The Japan-headquartered company did so at the Post Office's request in some cases where SPMs dug their heels in and refused to accept responsibility for Horizon-generated shortfalls.
It got worse. Fujitsu supplied an expert witness to back up the Post Office's Crown Court assertions that Horizon was infallible, so far as accounting shortfalls were concerned. Barrister Simon Clarke, who in 2013 warned the Post Office that its behaviour was "in breach of their duty as a prosecutor," wrote in legal advice to its prosecutors that Fujitsu man Gareth Jenkins had made unjustifiable claims about the system.
Jenkins repeatedly told various courts in written statements: "In summary I would conclude by saying that I fully believe that Horizon will accurately record all data that is submitted to it and correctly account for it."
Clarke said: "Unfortunately that was not the case, certainly between the dates spanned by the statements I have extracted here, the 5th October 2012 and the 3rd April 2013." He also said the Post Office should stop using Jenkins as an expert witness, not least because as an employee of Fujitsu testifying about a Fujitsu system he was clearly not impartial, as experts are supposed to be.
Computer says yes so we'd best agree
Nonetheless, many Crown Court judges around the country appeared to have taken Jenkins at his word. The Court of Appeal hinted at this without making any concrete findings about Jenkins' conduct, saying today that had Fujitsu and the Post Office been honest, "no judge would have been placed in the unhappy position of learning – as some judges (or retired judges) will do if they read this judgment – that they unwittingly sentenced a person who had been prevented by the prosecutor from having a fair trial."
In a prepared statement Fujitsu said today: "Fujitsu was not a party to the recent Court of Appeal proceedings relating to sub-postmasters' criminal convictions and so is not in a position to comment. We are continuing to cooperate with the ongoing Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry."
In late 2019, some of the company's staff were referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions due to concerns over the veracity of evidence they had given in other Horizon cases, alongside Jenkins and a fellow company court witness, Anne Chambers.
Today brings justice to the following people, whose criminal convictions were quashed:
Josephine Hamilton, Hughie Thomas, Allison Henderson, Alison Hall, Gail Ward, Julian Wilson (deceased), Jacqueline McDonald, Tracy Felstead, Janet Skinner, Scott Darlington, Seema Misra, Della Robinson, Khayyam Ishaq, David Hedges, Peter Holmes (deceased), Rubina Shaheen, Damien Owen, Mohammed Rasul, Wendy Buffrey, Kashmir Gill, Barry Capon, Vijay Parekh, Lynette Hutchings, Dawn O’Connell (deceased), Carl Page, Lisa Brennan, William Graham, Siobhan Sayer, Tim Burgess, Pauline Thomson, Nicholas Clark, Margery Williams, Tahir Mahmood, Ian Warren, David Yates, Harjinder Butoy, Gillian Howard, David Blakey and Pamela Lock.
The Post Office said it was contacting other former SPMs to advise them how they could appeal against their convictions, and expressed remorse for its previous behaviour. These statements didn't stop it from awarding Fujitsu a £42m extension to the Horizon contract a fortnight ago.
A government review of the scandal is ongoing, though it lacks the powers of a full-blown public inquiry.
Three convictions, those of Wendy Cousins, Stanley Fell and Neelam Hussain, were upheld today. ®
The Post Office scandal came to light over the last decade through the dogged work of Private Eye magazine, Computer Weekly, and freelance journalist Nick Wallis.