The campaign group at the centre of the fight for justice for subpostmasters who had their lives ruined by the Post Office’s error-prone computer system has asked prime minister Boris Johnson to pause the government inquiry into the scandal.
In a letter sent on 3 February, the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA), through its solicitor Howe & Co, also requested a meeting with Johnson to discuss concerns over the weakness of the inquiry in its current form.
A Computer Weekly investigation in 2009 revealed the stories of subpostmasters who suffered losses they said were due to errors in the retail and accounting software they use in branches, known as Horizon. The Post Office denied this, and around 900 subpostmasters were prosecuted for theft and false accounting, with some being sent to prison, in what has become one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in UK history (see timeline below).
The JFSA was set up in 2009 by former subpostmaster Alan Bates and other victims of the Horizon scandal after a Computer Weekly’s report alerted subpostmasters, who had suffered unexplained losses, to the fact that they were not alone despite the Post Office telling them that they were isolated cases.
A multimillion-pound High Court legal battle, which concluded in December 2019, proved that the Horizon system had many bugs that could cause unexplained losses.
In a letter to Boris Johnson, Howe & Co, acting for the JFSA, requested that the prime minister pause the current non-statutory Post Office Horizon IT inquiry, re-establish it as a statutory inquiry, and hold a public consultation on the inquiry’s terms of reference.
“A non-statutory inquiry with limited terms of reference and with limited powers, under the sponsorship of a government department with a clear conflict of interest, will not suffice to redress the unprecedented and historic injustices of which the subpostmasters are victims,” it said.
More than a decade and a half from the introduction of Horizon in 1999, subpostmasters who manage Post Office branches were blamed for losses caused by errors in the Post Office’s core IT system.
Subpostmasters, the victims, were forced to take Post Office to court to prove the system was to blame.
They paid £46m in court costs to prove that the government-owned Post Office was wrong in its claims that the IT system used in branches was not responsible for accounting shortfalls. This was taken out of the damages they were awarded after winning the High Court litigation in December 2019, leaving than with just under £12m to share between the entire group of more than 500.
Many had lost businesses and houses, paid fines and lived with criminal records for many years. The damages awarded hardly scratched the surface of losses in terms of money, never mind the related suffering endured. One subpostmistress who was wrongly found guilty of theft was sent to prison and lost her livelihood, but only received £8,000, for example.
Following the extent of the miscarriage of justice becoming clear, Boris Johnson committed to an independent inquiry, but it has fallen short of what campaigners demand.
The government’s Post Office Horizon IT inquiry, chaired by former High Court judge Wyn Williams, is non-statutory, and campaigners for justice for victims of the scandal fear that the government will “brush it under the carpet” through the inquiry, which the JFSA described as a “whitewash”.
In particular, members are astonished and angered that the government inquiry will not have the power to call witnesses under oath, and that being run by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) means it lacks independence. As the organisation responsible for the Post Office, subpostmasters believe BEIS should itself be under investigation.
The JFSA letter to Johnson said: “It is also clear that that BEIS has a clear conflict of interest that renders it inappropriate to be the sponsoring department for an inquiry into these matters and to have control of the scope of the terms of reference of any inquiry.”
Criticism was also aimed at the terms of reference of the government inquiry, which it said in the letter will not get to the bottom of the central issue in the scandal.
“[The] government must investigate how it was possible that hundreds of small businesspeople were prosecuted for theft and false accounting, on the basis of flawed and potentially perjured evidence. The current inquiry’s terms of reference specifically exclude examination of any issues pertaining to this centrally important matter,” said the letter.
The JFSA said last year that they will not cooperate with the inquiry unless there are substantial changes to the terms of reference.
Many in Westminister share the JFSA’s concerns about the inquiry. Conservative peer James Arbuthnot, who has campaigned for justice for subpostmasters for many years, described the current inquiry as “a cynical cop-out”.
“It is nothing like the judicial inquiry we need. The terms of reference have been mildly tweaked, but not in such a way to bring in the key issues of the role of the government and the role of Fujitsu,” said Arbuthnot.
During the House of Commons debate in October, Gareth Thomas, Labour/Co-op MP for Harrow West, said: “Ministers have set up a half-baked inquiry in response to this extraordinary scandal, without the powers to fully get to the bottom of this mess.”
The JFSA said the power to call witnesses under oath is essential if the full truth is to be revealed and if the inquiry is to succeed, as its High Court group litigation against the Post Office proved. During the trials, the Post Office and other defence witnesses were forced to reveal damning evidence not seen before.
Court case spurs further investigations
The findings in the High Court case against the government-owned Post Office, which the subpostmasters paid for, has contributed to other investigations of national significance.
Soon after the High Court trial ended, the Metropolitan Police began investigating potential perjury in relation to evidence given in previous trials of subpostmasters by former Fujitsu staff.
It was also not long after the judgments that the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) initially referred around 39 prosecutions of subpostmasters, based on Horizon evidence, for appeal. Although the CCRC has been reviewing subpostmaster cases since 2015, it was after the High Court trials that the CCRC sent cases to the Court of Appeal. More have been sent since, and other potential appeals are under review by the CCRC.
In March 2020, after the cases were referred, Helen Pitcher, chairperson at the CCRC, told Computer Weekly that “things changed significantly with the judgments”.
Six subpostmasters have already had their convictions quashed, with the remaining cases set to have their appeals heard in the Court of Appeal in March 2021.
The JFSA also sent letters to the director of public prosecutions (DPP) Max Hill, and to the Metropolitan Police commissioner Cressida Dick, in regards to the investigation into former Fujitsu staff of potential perjury during the trials of subpostmasters prosecuted for financial crimes based on Horizon data.
In a letter to Max Hill, the JFSA – through Howe & Co – sought assurances over investigations into potential perjury in by Fujitsu witnesses in previous trails
“As a result of that litigation and their long-standing involvement in representing these victims, Alan Bates and the JFSA are ideally placed to assist you in considering and reviewing this referral and its full implications,” said the JFSA solicitor in the letter.
“Given the appalling mistreatment of Alan Bates and the subpostmasters over the course of the past decade, they are entitled to an assurance from you that you and your office will properly and fully consider the full extent of what appears to be the most serious, nationwide and continuing miscarriage of justice.”
Writing to Cressida Dick, Howe & Co wrote: “Our clients look to you to provide them with assurances that the Metropolitan Police will conduct a full investigation of what is already a national scandal, including by seeking the evidence and knowledge that they hold which will be directly relevant to your investigation.”
The JFSA has requested meetings with both the DPP and the Met Police commissioner.