2021iv28, Wednesday: “A bloody computer system killed my brother.”

More on the Horizon scandal. And yes, it’s a scandal.

Someone is right on the internet: A very short hit. Because Dan Hon, an excellent writer on tech, has hit the nail on the head with an important backstory to the Post Office Horizon scandal in which dozens of honest sub-postmasters were prosecuted and convicted because the software running their accounting went horribly wrong – and no-one was willing to admit it.

His take is very much on how Horizon went so badly wrong, from a software and services project management perspective. That makes it sound boring. It really isn’t. It’s critical to understanding how organisations go so far off the rails that they do truly sociopathic things like what the sub-postmasters experienced.

Not least because as is almost always the case, it’s not actually a case of “computer says no”. Instead, it’s a story of human decision-making, and decision-ducking, and arse-covering. With utterly tragic and – quite possibly – criminal results.

Read the whole thing, but this ending is bang on the money. Under the heading “The Biggest Lesson”, Dan writes:

The sister of the former post office worker who committed suicide said: “a bloody faulty computer system killed my brother”. [The Evening Standard, April 12 2021]

My heart goes out to Jayne Caveen. And I hate to do this: a computer system did not kill her brother. Horrible people in management killed her brother, and it’s easiest to blame it on a computer system.

People, people in management, people in positions of trust people running one of the most trusted institutions in England made those decisions to double down and to persecute and prosecute people knowing that the evidence wasn’t reliable and concealing that evidence wasn’t reliable. Intentionally not investigating reports for fear of what might be found, because it might affect public perception of trust, or because it might be discoverable and admissable in court. Cowardice, fear and a lack of integrity is what happened. Pride and boastfulness in a system that could never do what it could. Using technology was and is an excuse. Not taking responsibility is what happened.

Technology is for people and made by people and this is what happens when the people running it don’t realize that.

Amen.


Short thought: Incidentally, the Court of Appeal judgment was unstinting in its criticism of the prosecution. And utterly unyielding in its position that the convictions were not only unsafe, but an affront to justice.

But it didn’t say, in terms that the victims – and victims they were – of this injustice were innocent. That wasn’t its job.

And that’s a problem.

Because ever since 2014, victims of miscarriages of justice – even those who may have had their lives destroyed, spent years in jail, and gone broke trying to defend themselves (see the Secret Barrister’s first book for details of this “innocence tax) – have faced an intimidating bar for getting compensation.

Intimidating? Make that well-nigh unclearable.

Look at it this way. People should only be convicted if a magistrate or jury is confident beyond reasonable doubt that they did what they’re accused of doing. “Beyond reasonable doubt” is now generally seen as not clear enough; judges now direct juries that they need to be “sure”.

This is rightly a high bar (or should be). A criminal conviction is a very big deal.

But under s133(1ZA) of the Criminal Justice Act, as amended by the then Conservative-led government in 2014, this is the test for miscarriage-of-justice compensation:

…there has been a miscarriage of justice in relation to a person convicted of a criminal offence in England and Wales… if and only if the new or newly discovered fact shows beyond reasonable doubt that the person did not commit the offence and references in the rest of this Part to a miscarriage of justice are to be construed accordingly).

In other words: you get banged up. You shouldn’t have. Your life is ruined.

But you have to prove your own innocence to the same standard as proof of guilt. Not “more likely than not” innocent. Not “all the evidence points towards someone else” innocent. No: “can’t possibly have been you, under any reasonable circumstances” innocent.

No-one pays to help you do this. No account taken of the fact you might have been seriously psychologically damaged by your ordeal. And if you don’t do all this and submit your application within two years of your conviction being quashed, then by s133(2) you’re out of luck anyway.

I very much doubt the sub-postmasters can reasonably surpass this hurdle. Even though they’ve obviously been subject to the most appallingly inhumane and unjust treatment.

I don’t often say this. But this provision is wholly unjust. It makes a mockery of the need to correct injustices. It needs to go. Although I can’t imagine this government – or any other government which relies on the hang-and-flog vote – doing anything about it.


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