Seven more Subpostmaster convictions have been quashed at the Court of Appeal, bringing the total number to 72. This represents just under a tenth of the 738 people convicted using Horizon evidence between 2000 and 2015 when the Post Office stopped prosecuting people.
Pauline Stonehouse, Greg Harding, Angela Sefton, Anne Nield, Janine Powell, Marisa Finn and Jamie Dixon were told Horizon evidence was essential in the cases against them, and there was inadequate investigation and/or disclosure in all cases.
In two cases – Greg Harding in 2010 and Jamie Dixon in 2013, the Post Office only accepted a guilty plea for false accounting if Harding and Dixon made no mention of problems with Horizon in any statement of mitigation. 2010 – 2013 is the period when the Post Office knew it had problems with Horizon and knew there was a campaign by the Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance and amongst parliamentary backbenchers. This is the cover-up writ large and it created significant human suffering. The Post Office told the court today it now accepts its actions were “improper”.
Lord Justice Holroyde made no distinction between category 1 and category 2 abuse in all of today’s unopposed cases, which suggests the convictions were quashed on the same basis as those in April and July – all were category 2 abuse – an affront to the public conscience.
Pauline Stonehouse and Greg Harding were the only appellants in court today, the others either did not attend or did so remotely via videolink. Outside court Greg told me he thought the Post Office’s actions in prosecuting him were “despicable”. Greg ran the Hipperholme Post Office near Halifax. He was prosecuted over an £18,000 cash discrepancy and a further £2000 in supposedly missing stamps.
He said today was an “awesome, absolutely awesome – worth waiting for”.
I asked him to explain what it was like to live as a convicted criminal when he knew he was innocent. He replied:
“I’ve had this horrible, gutting feeling of being ripped off by the Post Office for ten years. I have my business stripped away from me. I’ve lost relationships. The Post Office took that away.”
Before being suspended over the £20K discrepancy at his office, Greg and his wife Gillian had had two large discrepancies which they settled by re-mortgaging their home. Unable to do so again, in order to keep trading, Greg started covering another growing discrepancy by agreeing figures on the Horizon system which were not correct.
When a Post Office auditor came to his branch and and found the cash discrepancy Greg was honest about what he had been doing. He was suspended on the spot and had to sell his branch to settle the “missing” amount.
A few months later, on Gill’s birthday, Greg was told he was being prosecuted for theft and false accounting, something he describes as “Life-shattering. Gut-wrenching. I didn’t feel that bright over what happened anyway, but they just started throwing the book at us.”
Surprise surprise, Greg was told that if he pleaded guilty to false accounting, the Post Office would drop the theft charge, but they would only accept his plea if he didn’t criticise Horizon in any documents put before the court.
After receiving a 20-week sentence suspended for two years, Greg went back to his old job as a welder-fabricator. He describes the Post Office’s behaviour as “accusational. Why on earth would you steal from your on business? I thought I was the only one.”
Pauline Stonehouse ran the beachside Post Office of Seaburn in Sunderland. On 1 August 2008 she was sentenced to a six month community order after pleading guilty to false accounting. In the words of Simon Baker QC in court:
“Mrs Stonehouse had herself contacted Post Office to assist her with unexplained [Horizon] shortfalls. At her request, a field support advisor had attended the branch to try to help her understand the source of her discrepancies. She had also disclosed to her business relationship manager that she had been suffering losses which she could not afford to make good and had therefore been covering up. When the branch was audited, Horizon showed a shortfall of £15,699.16.”
Despite Pauline’s requests for assistance with problems she could not understand, the Post Office forced her to make good the discrepancy and then criminally prosecuted her. She was told it was because they wanted to set an example. She accepted this explanation at the time because she had no idea anyone else had been prosecuted.
“I’m disgusted.” she told me “They could have ended our marriage. The accusations they threw at Christopher. ‘Are you sure your husband’s not taken the money?’”
The Post Office’s actions in nearly or actually destroying families has yet to be properly documented, and it’s this which brings home the real-world, lasting damage of the scandal in addition to the mental health trauma, financial loss and ruined prospects. Last week Norman Barber, whose conviction was quashed at Southward Crown Court told me his father stopped speaking to him when he was convicted and he hasn’t been able to rebuild the bridges since. Today, Pauline told me she was forced to confront her husband:
“I went home after my interview. I’d been there for hours and hours. I’d mulled it over and mulled it over and I asked him ‘Did you steal the money…? Babe, did you?’ And he said, ‘Why would I?’ but the fact they put the thought in my head when I knew he wouldn’t have done that. It could have ended our marriage. But we’re strong. We’ve got a good thing. We love each other. And they could have ended all of that. Because of their vindictiveness.”
Nonetheless the couple have suffered:
“They knew they had a problem with Horizon, but they weren’t going to admit it. It’s livelihoods, families, reputations. For me to end up in Newcastle Crown Court and be photographed and have my face in the Sunderland Echo and Northern Echo and being named and shamed and making me out to be a bad person and I’m not a bad person.”
Pauline found out about about the Bates v Post Office civil litigation and applied to join up in 2017, but eventually decided it was all too much. She saw the appeals going through earlier this year, and was contacted in May by the Post Office who told her she may well have grounds for appeal. They sent her a list of solicitors. Pauline chose to go with Hudgells who she says have made the whole process “really straightforward, really easy. They’ve been so amazing to work with.”
There were two opposed prosecutions heard in court today. The appellants are Roger Allen and Alan Robinson, who were prosecuted by the DWP. The CPS (acting for the DWP as the DWP no longer has this legal function) opposes their appeals on the grounds Horizon evidence was not essential to their prosecution. The Court of Appeal will hand down a written judgment on Messrs Allen and Robinson’s cases along with its reasons for allowing the unopposed appeals at a later date.
More appeals are in the pipeline.
If you want to read the blow-by-blow tweets from today, they’re here all on one beautifully-curated webpage.
I have written a book about the Post Office Horizon Scandal which you can buy for £25 as a hardback or £8.99 as an e-book from Bath Publishing and all good outlets. Please click here for more information.