Will sub-postmasters and mistresses finally get the redress they deserve?
A public inquiry examining the wrongful convictions of 736 sub-postmasters and mistresses accused of theft, fraud, and false accounting between 2000 and 2014 began last month and is expected to resume on 16th March 2022.
The UK’s most widespread miscarriage of justice
For years the Post Office held an aggressive defensive position, claiming there was nothing wrong with its Horizon IT system, and instead blaming sub-postmasters and mistresses for incompetence or criminality. However, a multimillion-pound group litigation brought by 555 of the victims in 2019 ended with the Post Office conceding that it was wrong.
Mr Justice Fraser found that there were numerous bugs, errors or defects in Horizon which could, and in fact did cause, shortfalls in Post Office branches. He described the Post Office’s denial of the problem as “the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the earth is flat.”
Furthermore, it was found that the Post Office did indeed have extensive knowledge of Horizon’s technical problems, and deliberately failed to comply with disclosure obligations.
The Court ruled “that if the full picture had been disclosed, as it should have been, the public interest in prosecution would have been heavily outweighed by the need to maintain public confidence in the criminal justice system.”
This verdict opened the opportunity for victims to appeal their sentences, even those that has previously pleaded guilty. In referring the case to the Court of Appeal, the Criminal Cases Review Commission put forward grounds on the basis that (a) the reliability of Horizon data was essential to the original convictions, and without that data it was not possible for the trial process to be fair; and (b) that further to the findings of Mr Justice Fraser it was an afront to the public conscience for the appellants to face prosecution.
What will be the impact?
Since 2019, 47 convictions have been successfully overturned, prompting this new inquiry. However, no-one has been held to account for the decade long miscarriage of justice or the ensuing cover-up.
The total compensation bill is expected to exceed £1bn. Let’s hope that the sub-postmasters and mistresses finally get the meaningful compensation they deserve. Although no amount of financial redress can ever truly compensate for the suffering of the victims many of whom had their lives destroyed – several received custodial sentences, many more were financially ruined, and at least four committed suicide.
Speaking at the hearing victims have made impassioned pleas for the Post Office to own up to its mistakes and pay them the compensation they so rightly deserve.
The inquiry is expected to deliver its findings next year, but many of the victims maintain their belief that the people responsible will never be fully brought to justice.