LONDON – In a ruling that reversed one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in British legal history, 39 people who ran local post offices had their convictions for theft, fraud and false accounting overturned Friday because of what an appeals court said was clear evidence of “bugs, errors or defects” in an IT system.
The decision follows a years-long, complex legal battle that could see Britain's Post Office face a huge compensation bill for its failures following the installation, from 1999, of what turned out to be the defective Horizon computerized accounting system in local branches.
Dozens of staff were convicted after the Fujitsu-supplied system pointed to an array of financial misdemeanors that bewildered the postal workers. Six others had their convictions quashed previously, while another 700 or so workers also are believed to have been prosecuted between 2000 and 2014.
What is clear is that those convicted had their lives and livelihoods ruined — beyond the prison sentences that some of them received. From being pillars of their local communities, they became pariahs. Jobs, homes and marriages were lost as a result of wrongful convictions, and some did not live long enough to see their names cleared by Britain's Court of Appeals.
Confirmation that the convictions were quashed was met with cheers and tears. A few bottles of bubbly were also popped.
Harjinder Butoy, who was convicted of theft and jailed for more than three years in 2008, described the Post Office as “a disgrace” after his conviction was overturned. Butoy, who ran a local post office in the north England city of Nottingham, said his conviction had “destroyed” his life over 14 years.
“That’s not going to be replaced,” he said outside the Royal Courts of Justice after the convictions were quashed, adding that those responsible for the needless prosecutions “need to be punished, seriously punished."
Announcing the court's ruling on Friday, Lord Justice Timothy Holroyde said the Post Office “knew there were serious issues about the reliability" of Horizon and had a “clear duty to investigate” its defects.
In the written ruling on behalf of the three-member panel, Holroyde said the Post Office's “failures of investigation and disclosure were so egregious as to make the prosecution of any of the ‘Horizon cases’ an affront to the conscience of the court.”
Holroyde said three of the appeals made to the court were dismissed because “the reliability of Horizon data was not essential to the prosecution case."
In a statement, Neil Hudgell from Hudgell Solicitors, who represented 29 of the former officials, said it is “almost impossible” to relay the impact on those caught up in the scandal.
“They are honest, hard-working people who served their communities but have had to live with the stigma of being branded criminals for many years, all the while knowing they have been innocent,” he said.
He called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to announce a “judge-led public inquiry,” with the power to summon witnesses.
“The time has come now for people at the Post Office who were involved in any way relating to these unsafe convictions to feel the uncomfortable breath of the law on their necks as our clients did,” he said.
Johnson welcomed the court's ruling, too, saying the prosecutions were “an appalling injustice" that left a trail of devastation.
“Our thoughts are very much with the victims and we’ll have to make sure that people get properly looked after because it’s clear that an appalling justice has been done,” he said.
The Criminal Cases Review Commission, which investigates potential miscarriages of justice, encouraged any other former Post Office employees to consider challenging their convictions. The commission is already in the process of reviewing another 22 cases.
Post Office chairman Tim Parker said in a statement that the organization is “extremely sorry for the impact on the lives of these postmasters and their families that was caused by historical failures.”
Tom Hedges, who was convicted of theft and false accounting and given a seven-month suspended sentence in 2011, opened a bottle of prosecco outside the Royal Courts of Justice after his conviction was quashed.
He said his 93-year-old mother had recommended he celebrate with a bottle of the Italian sparkling wine.
“She said, ‘Just remember your name is Hedges not Rothschild, so get prosecco, not Bollinger!’”