Indian-origin postal managers are among a group of 39 people who won a Court of Appeal case in the UK on Friday that dismissed their convictions for allegedly stealing money and false accounting following the installation of a new computer system in local post offices in a historic scandal dating back several years.
These former sub-postmasters were hit by a faulty IT system, called Horizon, that led to accusations of them of stealing funds from the UK’s Post Office Ltd.
In 2019, a High Court ruling had approved a 57.8-million pounds settlement between hundreds of claimants and the Post Office, with many then left to overturn their convictions. Among the group of 39 are the likes of Seema Misra and Vijay Parekh, who had maintained their innocence.
Ms Misra took over her post office in Surrey in 2005 and was pregnant when she was wrongly handed a 15-month sentence 10 years ago after being accused of stealing 75,000 pounds from her branch.
“I would definitely have killed myself if I hadn’t been pregnant,” said Ms Misra, a mother of two who hailed Friday’s Court of Appeal verdict as a “huge moment”.
Sub-postmasters like her had appealed their convictions on two grounds: that they had been denied a fair trial, and that the circumstances in which the prosecutions went ahead “represents an affront to public conscience”.
In a ruling at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, a three-judge bench granted the appeal on both grounds.
“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,” said Lord Justice Timothy Holroyde, sitting with Justice Simon Picken and Justice Judith Farbey.
He 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.
The ruling means the former postmasters could bring new civil cases for malicious prosecution, which could mean the Post Office having to pay out more in compensation.
“I am in no doubt about the human cost of the Post Office’s past failures and the deep pain that has been caused to people affected,” said Post Office chief executive Nick Read.
“The quashing of historical convictions is a vital milestone in fully and properly addressing the past as I work to put right these wrongs as swiftly as possible and there must be compensation that reflects what has happened,” he said.
The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), which referred the sub-postmasters’ convictions to the Court of Appeal, termed it as “serious miscarriage of justice” which has had a devastating impact on these victims and their families.
“Every single one of these convictions has clearly had a profound and life-changing impact for those involved. The Post Office has rightly acknowledged the failures that led to these cases and conceded that the prosecutions were an abuse of process,” said CCRC chair Helen Pitcher.
The controversial Horizon system, developed by the Japanese company Fujitsu, was first rolled out in 1999 to some post offices to be used for a variety of tasks, including accounting and stocktaking.
But it appeared to have significant bugs, which could cause the system to misreport, sometimes involving large sums as was the case in the case of these sub-postmasters.