Cleared: Midlands Post Office workers jailed over computer glitch have their convictions quashed

Three former post office workers from the Midlands who were wrongly jailed because of a glitch in the computer system have had their convictions overturned and their named cleared at the Court of Appeal today.

They are among 39 former post office workers who were convicted of theft, fraud and false accounting because of the Post Office's defective Horizon accounting system.

Following today's ruling there were immediate calls for a public inquiry into the scandal which "destroyed" people's lives.

Workers' lives were "irreparably ruined" as they lost their jobs, homes and marriages after they were prosecuted by the Post Office - which knew the Fujitsu-developed IT system had "faults and bugs from the earliest days of its operation", the Court of Appeal had heard.

Tracy Felstead, from Telford, Rubbina Shaheen, from Shrewsbury, Carl Page who kept a post office in Rugeley, all had their convictions quashed today.

However, Neelam Hussain, who was sub-postmistress at the Farley Centre branch in West Bromwich had her appeal dismissed by the court. Mrs Hussain, 32, was jailed for 21 months in 2011 for stealing £21,000.

Tracy Felstead, left , from Telford, and Rubbina Shaheen, right, from Worthen, near Shrewsbury

The court had been told that a fault with the Post Office's computer database had falsely generated discrepancies in the the accounts which led them to being accused of theft or false accounting.

Mrs Shaheen, 55, who kept Greenfields Post Office in Shrewsbury, was jailed for 12 months in 2010 for false accounting. She had originally been charged with the theft of £40,000, but the Post Office agreed to drop the more serious charge on condition she pleaded guilty to false accounting.

Miss Felstead, 38, from Bournside Drive, Brookside, was an 18-year-old counter assistant when she was accused of stealing £11,500 from the post office where she worked in London. She denied the charge, but was convicted in 2001 and jailed for six months.

Mr Page, 54, who kept Anson Road post office in Rugeley, was jailed for two years in 2007 for allegedly stealing £94,000.

They were all wrongly blamed for errors generated by the Post Office's computer system, known as Horizon.

Mrs Shaheen, told how she had to sell her home and was forced to live in a van.

"It made me feel very small, that I was a criminal when the judge said it, which I never was and I knew I hadn't done it," she said.

She served three months in prison, adding: "It was terrible, really. I tried to keep my head down, keep out of everybody's way so I could do my time and just get out."

Mrs Shaheen added: t would be nice to have a written apology off (the Post Office) and then everybody who dealt with our cases, who did this to us, to be put into the dock and pay for it," she added.

Unlike most criminal cases, which are investigated by the police and handled by the Crown Prosecution Service, the Post Office acted as the prosecuting authority and laid the charges.

Former subpostmasters Janet Skinner, left, and Tracy Felstead outside the Royal Courts of Justice

In December 2019, the Post Office agreed to pay out £57.75 million in compensation and legal costs to a total of 555 former post-office workers who brought a civil action against the company in the High Court.

It was during that hearing that Mr Justice Fraser ruled that the evidence from the Horizon computer system was unreliable.

Lawyers representing 42 former subpostmasters said evidence of serious defects in the Horizon system was "concealed from the courts, prosecutors and defence", in order to protect the Post Office "at all costs".

Their convictions were referred to the court by the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) last year following a landmark High Court case against the Post Office.

The Post Office conceded that 39 of the 42 former subpostmasters should have their convictions overturned on the basis that "they did not or could not have a fair trial".

But it opposed 35 of those 39 cases on a second ground of appeal, which is that the prosecutions were "an affront to the public conscience".

At the Royal Courts of Justice in London on Friday, 39 of the former subpostmasters finally had their names cleared.

Announcing the court's ruling, Lord Justice Holroyde 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.

But the Post Office "consistently asserted that Horizon was robust and reliable" and "effectively steamrolled over any subpostmaster who sought to challenge its accuracy", the judge added.

The Court of Appeal also allowed the appeals on the basis that their prosecutions were an affront to justice.

Lord Justice Holroyde, sitting with Mr Justice Picken and Mrs Justice Farbey, said: "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."

'Blind eye'

However, three of the former subpostmasters - Wendy Cousins, Stanley Fell and Neelam Hussain - had their appeals dismissed by the court.

Lord Justice Holroyde said the Court of Appeal had concluded that, in those three cases, "the reliability of Horizon data was not essential to the prosecution case and that the convictions are safe".

Neil Hudgell, from Hudgell Solicitors, who represented 29 of the former subpostmasters, said his clients were "honest, hard-working people who served their communities but have had to live with the stigma of being branded criminals for many years, all the while knowing they have been innocent".

He said in a statement: "The Post Office still appears to care little about the people whose lives it has destroyed.

"Ultimately, it has been found to have been an organisation that not only turned a blind eye to the failings in its hugely expensive IT system, but positively promoted a culture of cover-up and subterfuge in the pursuit of reputation and profit.

"They readily accepted that loss of life, liberty and sanity for many ordinary people as a price worth paying in that pursuit."

Mr Hudgell said the "scandal" of the prosecution of subpostmasters "will only deepen should those involved not now finally face a fiercely-run investigation into how these prosecutions were conducted, what exactly was known as to the unreliability of the Horizon system when it was being used to ruin people's lives, and whether people acted in a criminal manner".

He called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to announce a "judge-led public inquiry", with the power to summons witnesses, into the prosecutions of subpostmasters.

Mr Hudgell added: "The time has come now for people at the Post Office who were involved in any way relating to these unsafe convictions to feel the uncomfortable breath of the law on their necks as our clients did.

"If they are then found to have broken the law, they must then feel the full force of it too."

Post Office chairman Tim Parker said in a statement: "The Post Office is extremely sorry for the impact on the lives of these postmasters and their families that was caused by historical failures.

"Post Office stopped prosecutions soon after its separation from Royal Mail a decade ago and has throughout this appeals process supported the overturning of the vast majority of convictions.

"We are contacting other postmasters and Post Office workers with criminal convictions from past private Post Office prosecutions that may be affected, to assist them to appeal should they wish."

Nick Read, Post Office chief executive, said: "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."owever, three of the former subpostmasters - Wendy Cousins, Stanley Fell and Neelam Hussain - had their appeals dismissed by the court.

Lord Justice Holroyde said the Court of Appeal had concluded that, in those three cases, "the reliability of Horizon data was not essential to the prosecution case and that the convictions are safe".

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