Reaching the Horizon - Court of Appeal Post Office judgment imminent

We are back to 1999.  Suppose that you are running a small Post Office branch. You enjoy the business: it provides a stable income, you like the people contact, and your customers value the service you give to the community.

However, all is not well. The Post Office have recently introduced a new computer system called 'Horizon'. The system is designed by Fujitsu. It is supposed to simplify your accounting for daily takings. Yet it is doing the opposite. You are starting to see accounting shortfalls.

What to do? You are confident in your competence to manage the business. You have always behaved ethically. But equally you fear getting into trouble with the Post Office. So you start to plug the gaps using your own money. After a while this becomes unsustainable, and anyway the Post Office are now on your back, questioning your honesty. Eventually, the 'you' in fact being some 900 or so sub-postmasters and sub-post mistresses, the Post Office successfully prosecutes individuals in bulk for variously fraud, theft and false accounting. 

After that, individual experiences diverge, but here is a selection of outcomes: imprisonment (in one case where the woman was eight weeks pregnant); damage to health; damage to livelihood; bankruptcy; loss of reputation in the community, with one postmistress being dubbed the 'lady who stole from pensioners', by the trial judge. 

In these cases counsel for the Post Office argued that there was only one explanation for the shortfalls, namely that the defendants had stolen the 'missing' amounts.

The amounts were not of course 'missing'. The 'Horizon' IT system was defective. And subsequent disclosure of documents showed that the Post Office knew it was defective. In a 2017 civil claim for compensation by 557 individuals affected, the High Court judge excoriated the Post Office over its behaviour.

After a long investigation the Criminal Cases Review Commission (the body that reviews possible serious miscarriages of justice) recommended that the Court of Appeal should review the convictions, to the intent of determining whether they should be quashed. This coming Friday, 23rd April, the Court will give its judgment on 43 cases.

The above is a tiny scratching at the surface of this story. However, the wound to the Post Office's reputation is deep. The Post Office would like to see the wound healed as soon as possible, so it can 'move on'. 

Protection of corporate reputation is a natural institutional phenomenon. However, is it right that multiple serious miscarriages of justice should be shuffled away conveniently into the margins of corporate history?

Over the next two weeks mainstream and social media will have the usual plethora of material with which to work: pandemic;, Northern Ireland; Cameron; EU etc. But if you hear or see 'Post Office', 'Fujitsu', 'Horizon', 'IT" or 'scandal', listen or read in. It is a matter of public importance.

The author is a writer, speaker, historian, and former Managing Partner of a City law firm.