Northern Ireland man Lee Williamson regrets pleading guilty to Post Office false allegation

A former Portstewart sub-postmaster says he regrets pleading guilty to the false allegation that he had committed fraud, after faulty systems showed a £17,000 shortfall in his branches’ accounts.

But Lee Williamson has been told the mass exoneration of all those wrongly convicted in the Horizon IT scandal, could mean he doesn’t have to keep fighting his appeal.

"The biggest regret I had was that because I had no explanation, I pleaded guilty to the charges that were presented," Mr Williamson told UTV.

"The advice at that time was I had no previous run-ins with the law, I had a clean record, and if I pleaded guilty I'd be likely to get a suspended sentence, and my main aim was to stay out of jail.

"And I suppose that was one of the main triggers of stating the appeal in 2022, was that it was one of the biggest regrets that if I didn't do it now, in 10 years time, would I still have the opportunity to go back and challenge the shortfalls?"

The Court of Appeal heard on Friday that emergency new laws announced by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to exonerate hundreds of victims could mean Lee Williamson no longer has to pursue a fight to overturn his conviction for fraud. 

His barrister, Michael Halleron, said: “These proceedings may be academic, we don’t know.”

In 2014, Mr Williamson, 48, was convicted of fraud by false representation offences and given an 18-month suspended sentence.

It was claimed that he had stolen and falsified accounting records in his role running a Post Office in Portstewart.

Charges were brought against him after an audit uncovered an alleged shortfall of £17,000.

More than 700 sub-postmasters across the UK were prosecuted by the Post Office between 1999 and 2015 for similar accounting errors.

Criminal proceedings were based on data from the faulty Horizon software which made it appear money was missing from branches.

It has been described as one of the worst miscarriages of justice in British history. 

Mr Williamson said: "You felt you'd let your family and your friends and everybody down, you let the community down that the Post Office was in, and you didn't have an answer to what was happening."

The scandal was thrust back into the spotlight after ITV drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office sparked a public outcry and renewed pressure on the UK Government to intervene.

Earlier this week Mr Sunak pledged that new legislation will be rushed forward to exonerate and compensate victims.

There is still uncertainty over how the legislation will be extended to Northern Ireland.

Meanwhile, Mr Williamson returned to court on Friday for the latest stage in his ongoing challenge.

He is among a group of around 20 sub-postmasters from Northern Ireland who were prosecuted in Horizon cases.

Despite the possible implications of the Government’s announcement, judges were told that his legal team is still getting ready to mount the appeal.

Mr Halleron said: “The Prime Minister has indicated a certain approach in these Post Office cases to bring forward primary legislation.

“We don’t know what that will contain, and whether it will be relevant to this applicant.

“To cover all eventualities we still have to prepare for a hearing.”

The court also heard that more time was needed to search a new batch of Post Office material for any information relevant to Mr Williamson.

Referring to the UK Government’s announcement, Counsel for the Public Prosecution Service pointed out that Northern Ireland has devolved justice powers.

“That is something which will have to be taken into account as well,” he said.

Following the update Lady Chief Justice Dame Siobhan Keegan listed the appeal for a further review in April.

“By that stage we should know what’s happening with this species of case,” she predicted.

Speaking outside court, Mr Williamson said the latest developments in the scandal had triggered a “rollercoaster” of emotions.

“I started this appeal process two years ago and if this new piece of legislation comes in and clears my name I will be satisfied, that was my first objective,” he insisted.

His optimism was tempered, however, by concern over the ongoing inactivity at Stormont.

“There’s hope for our situation in Northern Ireland, but if legislation is brought in we don’t have a sitting government,” he explained.

“That could cause delay and that’s why I’m continuing with the appeal.”

The former sub-postmaster also insisted he was wrongly put in a situation of having to prove his innocence. 

“The deck of cards was stacked in favour of the Post Office at all times,” he claimed.

“This past week has been a complete rollercoaster.

“Even watching the drama docuseries takes you right back to the bad times of dealing with the shortage.

“You’re trying to hold your emotions together so you don’t break down in front of your family, that’s where the anger comes in.

“But it has to be tempered so you don’t let it ruin your life.”

His solicitor, Michael Madden, added: “At the moment Mr Williamson’s appeal is still live.

“The hope is that it won’t be required because the new legislation that has been announced will quash his conviction.”

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