Horizon scandal: Family's fight to clear late mother's name after Post Office theft conviction

Wendy Cousins died while trying to overturn her conviction, blaming the missing money from her Post Office branch on the faulty Horizon IT accounting system, as Nick Wallis reports

Former subpostmaster Wendy Cousins died last year, a convicted criminal. In 2009, she pleaded guilty to stealing £13,000 from her own Post Office and was given a nine-month suspended sentence for theft.

Wendy had no previous criminal convictions and had always maintained her innocence, but shortly before her trial, she pleaded guilty. Her family say this was because she was terrified of going to prison.

Almost immediately after her conviction, Wendy joined the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, claiming she was not responsible for the money going missing from her branch - instead blaming the Post Office’s faulty Horizon IT accounting system.

Young Wendy Cousins. Credit: ITV News

In 2019, Wendy and more than five hundred other subpostmasters won a stunning victory at the High Court, which proved the Horizon system caused random discrepancies in Postmasters’ branch accounts.

Between 2000 and 2014, data from the Horizon system had been used to prosecute hundreds of subpostmasters for theft, fraud and false accounting.

As a result of the 2019 High Court judgment, the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) referred dozens of cases to the Court of Appeal. Wendy’s was one of them.

On April 23 2021, 39 subpostmasters had their convictions quashed, but Wendy’s was one of the three which was upheld. The judges were persuaded "it has not been demonstrated that Horizon reliability was essential to the case against Mrs Cousins”.

That, it seemed, was that.

Wendy's husband Paul Cousins, vowed to clear her name. Credit: ITV News

Three days after the judgment against Wendy, her son, Paul Cousins, got in touch with me. He was outraged at the Court of Appeal’s decision. Paul vowed never to give up on his quest to clear his mother’s name.

At the time, it didn’t seem like the family had many options. But over the last two years more information has come to light which may affect Wendy’s case and many like hers.

For 18 months, the public inquiry into the Post Office Horizon IT scandal has been scrutinising everything about the Post Office’s criminal prosecutions of Subpostmasters. As well as relying on accounting evidence from a shaky IT system, the inquiry has heard that Post Office investigators weren’t properly trained and its prosecution and evidence-gathering policies were not fit for purpose.

Taking note of this new evidence, the government’s independent Horizon Compensation Advisory Board (HCAB) wrote to the CCRC stating: “A rational observer would conclude - as we do - that no Post Office prosecution is safe unless there is the clearest of evidence that the person convicted has committed a crime...

"We believe that the justice system itself is called into question in the current circumstances."

The HCAB is concerned that some innocent Subpostmasters might be unable to get their convictions overturned, given the Court of Appeal’s apparent narrow focus on Horizon evidence.

Lord Arbuthnot, a member of the HCAB, told ITV News: “Having seen a bit of Wendy Cousin's case, I don't believe her conviction is safe... The Court of Appeal believes that it is applying the law as it exists.

"Maybe the law as it exists needs to be looked at again."

Lord Arbuthnot. Credit: ITV News

The appeals system is already under scrutiny after the failures highlighted by Andrew Malkinson, who spent 17 years in prison for rape. Mr Malkinson’s legal team had DNA evidence in 2009 which cast doubt on his conviction, but the Criminal Cases Review Commission refused to refer his case to the Court of Appeal for more than a decade.

After Andrew Malkinson’s conviction was finally quashed this year, the government asked the Law Commission to look at the appeals process. The Commission’s consultation document makes specific reference to the convicted Subpostmasters and their struggle for justice.

Neither the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry nor the Law Commission will report before next year. Their recommendations could have a significant bearing on Wendy Cousins' case.

In the meantime, her family keep waiting and hoping, mourning the loss of a beloved wife and mother.

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