Firstly – sorry for being off-schedule. Exhaustion, I’m afraid. Back to work, with a few words about the wholly shameful tale of the Horizon prosecutions.
Preface: I apologise. Last week was insane, to the point where I fell asleep before 9 on Friday night and (unusually for me) slept for more than 8 hours without interruption. The combination of general exhaustion and a hearing on Thursday for which the papers arrived very late, together with a family need to drive into central London and back on Wednesday (which meant losing about 6 hours of the working day) means I’ve wholly failed to keep up the schedule.
With readers’ permission, I’m going to forgive myself the lapse, and simply try to get back on schedule.
With that in mind…
Short thought: There are probably more egregious examples of shameless people doing shameful things than the one highlighted in the acquittal on appeal of 39 sub-postmasters in the Horizon affair. But offhand, it’s very hard to think of any.
The tale is told, with clarity, in the Court of Appeal’s judgment. For those few who don’t know:
- A Post Office accounting system, called Horizon, found significant errors and omissions in the accounting of a number of post offices.
- The Post Office said, and continued to say, that Horizon’s numbers were unquestionably accurate, and that the only explanation was fraud by the sub-postmasters running the post offices in question.
- It prosecuted dozens of them. For many, the Horizon data was the primary basis for the prosecution. Many were found guilty. Others pled guilty because they weren’t given access to underlying data and – in effect – had to prove their own innocence without the tools to do so.
- But – as it later transpired – Horizon was fatally flawed. Its data was unreliable, as an earlier civil court case demonstrated in a superb judgment from Fraser J, one of a series of such exemplary pieces of jurisprudence.
- And the Post Office knew it, but despite advice from a barrister who does credit to my profession (see paras 81-90 of the Court of Appeal judgment), refused to disclose it so as to avoid embarrassment.
A number of sub-postmasters appealed their convictions. And now, for all but three of them where there was other evidence, their convictions have been quashed.
I’m not sure “quashed” is a strong enough word. The judicial distaste, bordering on real anger, for the way the Post Office conducted the matter (as a private prosecutor) rings out throughout the 447 paragraphs of the Court of Appeal’s judgment.
Honestly, I can’t do justice to it. It’s a long read. But this is one of the great scandals of English criminal law: the conviction of dozens of people whom the Court of Appeal says were subject to prosecutions which amounted to “an affront to justice”.
These are not idle words. What the Court is saying is that in effect the system of criminal justice was abused by the Post Office, in its deliberate failure properly to investigate, and then to disclose matters which it had been clearly warned it had a legal duty to share with those it was prosecuting.
The depth of dissatisfaction is clear at paragraph 133:
POL’s [Post Office Ltd] failings of disclosure and investigation… ‘directly implicate the courts’. If the full picture had been disclosed, as it should have been, none of these prosecutions would have taken the course it did before the Crown Court. No judge would have been placed in the unhappy position of learning – as some judges (or retired judges) will do if they read this judgment – that they unwittingly sentenced a person who had been prevented by the prosecutor from having a fair trial.
To be clear: the Court of Appeal isn’t just feeling sorry for its sibling judges. Far from it. From the previous paragraph:
It is important here to state that many of these appellants went to prison; those that did not suffered other penalties imposed by the courts; all would have experienced the anxiety associated with what they went through; all suffered financial losses, in some cases resulting in bankruptcy; some suffered breakdowns in family relationships; some were unable to find or retain work as a result of their convictions – causing further financial and emotional burdens; some suffered breakdowns in health; all suffered the shame and humiliation of being reduced from a respected local figure to a convicted criminal; and three – all “Horizon cases” – have gone to their graves carrying that burden. Inevitably, the families of the SPMs have also suffered. In each of the “Horizon cases” it is now rightly conceded that those human costs and consequences were suffered after the denial by POL of a fair trial.
POL’s conduct was beyond shameful. It betrayed the trust of trusted, loyal employees. It condemned them to ignominy and poverty on false information, covering its own back along the way.
POL and those responsible for making the relevant decisions showed absolute contempt for the court. I can’t help wondering whether the court might, in turn, wish to take more formal notice of this. There’d be some justice in it, for sure.
(If you’d like to read more like this, and would prefer it simply landing in your inbox three or so times a week, please go ahead and subscribe at https://remoteaccessbar.substack.com/.)