Signed But Not Sealed: Ex-Post Office employees attempt to overturn convictions in the Court of Appeal

April 11, 2021

3 min read

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What's going on here?

42 former Post Office workers are set to appeal financial criminal convictions, due to claims that a faulty computer system was the cause for their wrongful convictions.

What does this mean?

Following their installation of the Horizon IT accounting system in 1999, the Post Office began noticing large sums of money disappearing from branch accounts. Despite being alerted to the fact that the system was frequently having problems, it was the employees who were blamed, and ultimately paid the price. Between 2000 and 2015, over 900 employees were prosecuted for crimes such as fraud, theft, and false accounting, with some even serving prison sentences.

However, the High Court has since confirmed that the company’s system did in fact contain ‘bugs, errors and defects’, which are believed to be the cause of the cash shortfalls within many accounts. As a result, a civil claim brought by over 550 claimants against the Post Office saw the company settle for a hefty £57.75m following a lengthy legal battle back in December 2019. The Post Office admitted to potentially having made mistakes when dealing with some postmasters, but remain unwilling to admit to any liability.

The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) referred 42 cases to the Court of Appeal following the multi-million pound settlement, as the High Court’s findings clearly undermined the reliability of the Horizon system, meaning there was a real possibility of a successful appeal.

What's the big picture effect?

As well as mental health and wellbeing, the way in which companies treat their employees is increasingly becoming something that the public takes notice of. Tim Maloney QC stated that as a result of the Post Office’s failure to believe their employees, and fierce defence of Horizon without proper investigation, lives were ruined, and some even taken. Former Post Office employees also reported bankruptcy, unemployment, psychological toll and marriage breakdowns, and many plead guilty simply to accept a lighter sentence, due to fears of having difficulty defending themselves, which ultimately resulted in serving jail time.

The High Court’s findings were not the first time that the Post Office had been alerted to potential issues with the system, and Mr Justice Fraser likened its denial of the system being plagued with bugs to ‘the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the earth is flat’. In trying to protect their reputation and IT system, the Post Office instead became the ‘nation’s most untrustworthy brand’, and faced backlash for their treatment of employees. Despite ‘sincerely [apologising] to postmasters affected by historical events’, it’s clear that the irreparable damage of these life changing convictions cannot be undone. However, squashing false convictions may be a weight off the shoulders of innocent ex-postmasters, and also help those who have struggled to rebuild their lives with a criminal record.

The case also presents the opportunity to show historical cases being taken seriously, and justice still being upheld, despite the many years that have passed, potentially setting a positive precedent. In addition, not only does it highlight how companies are held accountable for mistreating employees, but also reveals how damaging these allegations of financial crimes can be, and how negatively these cases can affect a company’s brand or reputation.

In the meantime as we await a ruling, many are hoping that the four day hearing will allow the former employees to finally clear their names against the Post Office, and have their convictions overturned, but will the Court of Appeal deliver?

Report written by Lotanna Okaro

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