THREE years after the Eye reported the convictions of dozens of sub-postmasters for fraud and false accounting on the back of unreliable computer evidence (see issues 1298 and 1299), a leaked report on the scandal lays bare serious failings in Post Office investigations that could mean miscarriages of justice on a grand scale.
In 2012, growing concern over the matter and pressure from MPs led by Hampshire Tory James Arbuthnot forced the Post Office to appoint independent forensic accountants Second Sight to investigate the Post Office’s ancient, over-priced Horizon IT system. Its interim conclusions last year (Eye 1344) highlighted serious failings and forced the Post Office to set up a mediation scheme for aggrieved sub-postmasters.
Most cases involved sub-postmasters finding unexplained deficits on their books, failing to get any help when they contacted the Post Office and then – since they were strictly liable for any shortfalls under punitive contracts – failing to record them properly. This played into the hands of aggressive Post Office investigators.
Innocent lives ruined
A new, leaked, Second Sight report finds that the investigators often “fail to identify the underlying root cause of shortfalls prior to initiating civil recovery action or criminal proceedings”. Scalp-hungry officials then “seem to have defaulted to seeking evidence that would support a charge of false accounting, rather than carrying out an investigation into the root cause of any suspected problems… investigators seem to have found that recording admissions of false accounting was the key to achieving relatively rapid, and inexpensive, asset recovery.” The 23-page document also notes poor training of sub-postmasters using Horizon, inadequate record-keeping and shoddy auditing processes.
If innocent lives are ruined in the process, however, so be it. As reported in the Eye three years ago, Surrey postmistress Seema Misra went to prison while pregnant on the strength of disputed Horizon evidence. Lee Castleton from East Yorkshire was told to repay £25,000 even though the Post Office wouldn’t tell him how it had disappeared. Tom Brown from County Durham was pursued for four years, accused of stealing £85,000. After sacking and bankrupting Mr Brown, the Post Office couldn’t provide any evidence against him in court. There are dozens more heartbreaking stories behind this scandal, with at least one suicide; and 150 serious cases are being reviewed under the mediation scheme, but many more have been reported.
Head in the sand
The Post Office, meanwhile, is desperate for the problem to go away. It pressured the working group set up to coordinate the mediation process to ignore Second Sight’s report and not pass it on to the mediation team, but it was overruled on the casting vote of working group chairman Lord Cooper.
The panic is unsurprising. If the Post Office’s in-house criminal prosecution team is proved to have made as many catastrophic errors as the Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance campaign group alleges, there could be dozens of overturned prosecutions and multi-million pound damages claims. All the while, focus has shifted away from introducing improvements to the Horizon system. As a result Horizon is less secure than comparable retail banking systems and far easier to defraud.
The Post Office’s chief executive Paula Vennells plants her head in the sand, refusing to meet the Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance face-to-face and leaving it to the Post Office’s lawyers, Bond Dickinson, to stall, dispute and obfuscate. As more than one party has pointed out, Bond Dickinson has a vested interest in dismissing concerns. It was used by the Post Office to sue its sub-postmasters for Horizon imbalances in the first place.
Campaigners are beginning to suspect that despite setting up the investigation and promising to sort things out, the mediation scheme is an attempt by the Post Office to head off legal action and buy the silence of disaffected postmasters. Individual case reviews have barely started, the Post Office is at war with the investigators it appointed and many innocent people, who have lost years of their lives to this scandal, still have no redress.