WHAT NEXT FOR THOSE WRONGLY PROSECUTED BY THE POST OFFICE?
The successful appeal against the private prosecutions brought by the Post Office of many innocent Sub-Post Masters and Mistresses is one of the most significant criminal cases in recent history. This level of abhorrent disclosure failures by the Post Office and a continuing abuse of process for more than tehn years in cases across England and Wales is unprecedented.
It is difficult to over-state how appalling these prosecutions were; hardworking Post-Masters and Mistresses were accused of serious criminal conduct which they had not committed and was instead the consequence of a computer software system that made numerous errors and which created imbalances in daily and weekly accounts held by a local post office.
The headlines from this case are as follows:
The Human Impact
Rubbina Shaheen lost her livelihood, her home and her liberty. Her situation was such that she ended up living with her husband in a van for quite some time until she was helped by a friend who found them a roof to sleep under and helped them rebuild their lives. He helped them with their long campaign to clear their names. That said she still suffers from numerous health problems brought on by the ordeal she had to go through since the Post Office began investigating her. Her health problems greatly affect her quality of life. She has had to live with this case for over 10 years.
Scott Darlington lost his job and good name. He was shamed by local press coverage and was unable to get another job for 3 and half years because of this conviction. He suffered weight loss and stress, his family suffered because of his inability to work, he was unable to provide for his child as he would have wanted. He has had to deal with this for years as he fought to clear his name.
Peter Holmes sadly has not lived to see his name cleared. He worked as a police officer serving his community for 12 years before eventually taking on his role as a Manager at the Post Office. He lost job and ability to find other work. Whilst suspended waiting to see if he would be prosecuted he worked delivering flowers for a florist in Gosworth, once he got notified that he was being prosecuted he was too embarrassed to continue to work because he did not want to say that he could not come to work because of court. He was humiliated by the local press coverage and wanted to see his name cleared in the press. He gradually became withdrawn and depressed and eventually died of a brain tumour in October 2015. He died not knowing that eventually the Post Office would concede his appeal.
Stanley Fell was convicted in 2007. The proceedings were so devastating that he had attempted to end his life on two occasions. Working for the Post Office had been in in his family for generations. It was the only work he knew, it was his livelihood. He ran the Post Office for many years in his small village town without any issues. The proceedings robbed him of his good character.
A Public Inquiry
There must, without a doubt be a public Statutory Inquiry to look at what went wrong. Who knew what internally and externally and when? The Post Office has set up a review that bizarrely will not be looking at what went wrong in the Criminal Prosecutions. The Post Office review will also not have statutory powers to call for the production of evidence or to compel the attendance of witnesses.
The Criminal Procedure Rules governing private prosecutions were amended in 2018 but will they ensure that disclosure is truly ‘frank and full’?
The Post Office is a state owned corporation, what involvement did the Government have in this terrible episode? Again, the Post Office review will not be considering the involvement of the Government in this scandal.
There must be an urgent criminal investigation into the actions of those at the Post Office to consider their possible criminal culpability in these more than ten years of abuse of the court’s process. It is not enough that only a handful of Fujitsu employees are being investigated by the Metropolitan Police. The investigation must be wider and must question financial investigators, senior management and lawyers acting on behalf of the Post Office.
The CCRC referred this case to the Court of Appeal. The CCRC provides checks and accountability in the Criminal Justice System yet the Government have cut their funds whilst permitting the Post Office to spend huge sums of public money on trying to fight the civil and criminal proceedings in their attempt to cover up their systematic failures. It is through the work of the CCRC and the legal aid lawyers who brought this appeal that this nightmare is finally ended for many innocent people.
The first wrongful Post Office prosecution commenced nearly twenty years ago with the last being as recent as six years ago. It is time for the Government to recognise the importance and role of these lawyers who strive to maintain and restore public confidence in our Criminal Justice System. The Government needs to support the work of these lawyers who provide a fundamental role in a robust and independent Justice system, a key element of a proper functioning democracy.
Paul Harris and Oneija Taher of Edward Fail Bradshaw and Waterson Solicitors
Sam Stein QC and Lynton Orrett of Nexus Chambers, the Chambers of Michael Mansfield QC