Postmasters accused of theft by Post Office have had convictions overturned

Postmasters speak to ITV News Correspondent Sejal Karia about how the scandal has affected them, with one describing it as "14 years of hell"

Thirty-nine former sub-postmasters who were convicted of theft, fraud and false accounting due to the Post Office's defective Horizon accounting system have had their names cleared by the Court of Appeal.

The Post Office prosecutions "irreparably ruined" the lives of scores of sub-postmasters causing them to lose their jobs, homes and marriages, the Court of Appeal heard last month.

Last year, the Post Office confirmed it would not oppose most of the appeals and apologised for "historical failings". 

Announcing the court’s ruling, Lord Justice Holroyde said the Post Office "knew there were serious issues about the reliability of Horizon" and had a "clear duty to investigate" the system’s defects.

But the Post Office “consistently asserted that Horizon was robust and reliable”, and “effectively steamrolled over any sub-postmaster who sought to challenge its accuracy”, the judge added.

The Court of Appeal also allowed 39 of the appeals on the basis that their prosecutions were an "affront to the public conscience".

Lord Justice Holroyde, sitting with Mr Justice Picken and Mrs Justice Farbey, said: "Post Office Limited’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.”

However, three of the former subpostmasters – Wendy Cousins, Stanley Fell and Neelam Hussain – had their appeals dismissed by the court.

Lord Justice Holroyde said the Court of Appeal had concluded that, in those three cases, "the reliability of Horizon data was not essential to the prosecution case and that the convictions are safe".

  • Watch the reaction from former sub-postmasters following the hearing:

Lawyers representing 42 former sub-postmasters said evidence of serious defects in the Horizon system was "concealed from the courts, prosecutors and defence", in order to protect the Post Office "at all costs".

Some of the sub-postmasters have since died, "having gone to their graves" with convictions against their name, while "some took their own lives", the Court of Appeal was told.

Rubbina Shaheen, 56, was jailed in November 2010 and ultimately had to sell her home and was forced to live in a van.

She told the PA news agency: "It made me feel very small, that I was a criminal when the judge said it, which I never was and I knew I hadn’t done it."

She served three months in prison, telling PA: "It was terrible, really. I tried to keep my head down, keep out of everybody’s way so I could do my time and just get out."

“It would be nice to have a written apology off (the Post Office) and then everybody who dealt with our cases, who did this to us, to be put into the dock and pay for it,” she added.

Jo Hamilton was given a 12-month supervision order after she was accused of stealing 36,000. Credit: ITV News Meridian

Grandmother Jo Hamilton, 63, who was given a 12-month supervision order, said: "I think this is the biggest miscarriage of justice.

"You think of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four – but there are hundreds of us.

"I was 45 when this started. It’s taken up nearly a third of my life. You think it’s never going to end.”

Mrs Hamilton said she admitted false accounting after being accused of stealing £36 000 when she ran a post office in South Warnborough, Hampshire.

“I was given a 12-month supervision order and have a criminal record,” she said.

“But I did nothing wrong. I told them about the problem but they said I was the only one.”

At the hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice in London on Friday, the Post Office conceded that 39 of the 42 appellants’ appeals should be allowed, on the basis that “they did not or could not have a fair trial”.

But it opposed 35 of those 39 cases on a second ground of appeal, which is that the prosecutions were "an affront to justice" but theses were allowed by the Court of Appeal.

The Post Office has previously said it will not seek retrials of any of the appellants if their convictions are overturned.

In a statement after the ruling, Post Office chairman Tim Parker said: “The Post Office is extremely sorry for the impact on the lives of these postmasters and their families that was caused by historical failures.

“Post Office stopped prosecutions soon after its separation from Royal Mail a decade ago and has throughout this appeals process supported the overturning of the vast majority of convictions."

At the hearing in March, Sam Stein QC – representing five of the former sub-postmasters – said the Post Office’s failure to investigate and disclose serious problems with Horizon was “the longest and most extensive affront to the justice system in living memory”.

He said the Post Office “has turned itself into the nation’s most untrustworthy brand” by attempting to “protect” Horizon from concerns about its reliability.

He also argued that the Post Office’s “lack of disclosure within criminal cases perverted the legal process”, with many defendants pleading guilty “without exculpatory facts being known or explored”.

Mr Stein told the court: “The fall from grace by the Post Office cannot be ignored.

“It has gone from valued friend to devalued villain.

“Those responsible within the Post Office had the duty to maintain not only the high standards of those responsible for any prosecution, but also to maintain the high faith and trust we had for the Post Office.

“Instead, the Post Office failed in its simplest of duties – to act honestly and reliably.”

The Post Office 'turned itself into the nation’s most untrustworthy brand', lawyers told the Court of Appeal.

Tim Moloney QC, representing the majority of the former sub-postmasters, said the Post Office’s failure to investigate the reliability of Horizon was “shameful and culpable”.

He added: “Those failures are rendered all the more egregious … by the inability of the defendants to make their own investigations of the reasons for the apparent discrepancies.”

Mr Moloney told the court there was “an institutional imperative of acquitting Horizon and convicted sub-postmasters … in order to protect Horizon and to protect their own commercial reputation”.

The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) referred the cases of 42 former sub-postmasters to the Court of Appeal last year, following a landmark High Court case against the Post Office.

The Post Office ultimately settled the civil claim brought by more than 550 claimants for £57.75 million, without admitting liability, in December 2019.

Mr Justice Fraser found Horizon contained “bugs, errors and defects” and that there was a “material risk” shortfalls in branch accounts were caused by the system.

As a result of the High Court’s findings, the CCRC referred the 42 former subpostmasters’ convictions to the Court of Appeal.