Video report by ITV News Correspondent Nick Wallace
The Post Office has apologised as six former subpostmasters who were prosecuted as a result of the Horizon accounting scandal became the first people to have their convictions formally overturned.
Subpostmasters were wrongly accused of theft, fraud and false accounting after the Fujitsu-developed Horizon IT system was introduced to Post Office branches in 1999.
Six people who were convicted at magistrates’ courts were formally acquitted at Southwark Crown Court on Friday after their convictions were referred by the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), which investigates miscarriages of justice.
A High Court judge ruled in December last year that the Horizon accounting system – which was introduced to Post Office branches in 1999 – contained a number of "bugs, errors and defects" and there was a "material risk" shortfalls in Post Office branch accounts were caused by the system.
In a statement after the hearing, a Post Office spokesman said: “Post Office did not oppose these appeals and sincerely apologises for historical failings.
“We have taken determined action to address the past, ensuring there is redress for those affected and to prevent such events ever happening again.
“Fundamental reforms have been made to forge a new relationship with postmasters, helping them to build thriving Post Office businesses for customers and communities throughout the UK.”
Further hearings are due to be held at the Court of Appeal in relation to other subpostmasters who were prosecuted over accounting errors.
Among those acquitted on Friday was former Oxfordshire subpostmaster Vipinchandra Patel, who was jailed for 18 weeks after pleading guilty to fraud in June 2011, having being accused of stealing £75,000.
The 67-year-old said: “The past nine years have been hellish and a total nightmare but today I feel I can start living again. I can look forward and focus on enjoying life.
“I feel euphoric as I have finally been vindicated. This conviction has been a cloud over my life for almost 10 years.”
Chris Trousdale, 38, from Whitby, North Yorkshire, was one of the country’s youngest subpostmasters when he was prosecuted by the Post Office for false accounting.
He was handed a community order in March 2004, with a probation order and a fine, at the age of just 22.
He said: “This has been a long and tortuous 16-year journey and finally the quashing of these wrongful convictions today feels like the heavy lead box we have been trapped in has had the lid ripped off.
“We can take our first breath and look forward to being able to start to heal and rebuild.”
Susan Rudkin, 65, was given a 12-month suspended sentence, ordered to complete 300 hours of unpaid work and placed on an electronically monitored curfew for six months after being convicted of stealing almost £44,000 from the branch she ran with her husband in Ibstock, Leicestershire.
She said on Friday: “This is like the best Christmas present I could have ever wished for.
“Clearing my name has been the single most important thing in my life as it proves what I have told everybody for years, that I was always innocent and that we have been put through the most awful experience.
“I get upset whenever I speak about it simply because it has had such an impact on our lives. I’ve had years of people pointing the finger at me, I have lost friends as well, having not done a thing wrong.
“Now I can hold my head high again, as can everybody else.”
Neil Hudgell, of Hudgell Solicitors, represents three of the six people who had their convictions quashed on Friday and a further 30 former subpostmasters whose appeals will be considered at a Court of Appeal hearing next year.
Mr Hudgell said: “Today is an historic day. These people have always been innocent, but they have each had a criminal record against their name which they have had to live with for many years, bringing many difficulties to their lives.
“Today, they can finally hold their heads high again as their names have been officially cleared in court.
“These people have had to fight all the way, for many years, for justice and we have been proud to help them reach this day.”
Mr Hudgell revealed his firm, working with barristers Tim Moloney QC and Kate O’Raghallaigh of Doughty Street Chambers, have been in contact with a “significant number” of new clients who have come forward to start the process of challenging their convictions, in addition to those already referred by the CCRC.
He added: “We now look forward to seeing a further 30 clients have their names cleared at the Court of Appeal in the new year, and we have also been instructed to act on behalf of a significant number of new clients for whom we are now starting the appeals process.”
In addition to full co-operation with the CCRC’s review, the Post Office said it has set up an extensive disclosure exercise, by external criminal law specialists, to identify material which might affect the safety of any relevant historical prosecutions.