All of the more than 900 postmasters prosecuted as part of the Horizon IT scandal should have their convictions overturned, a University of Exeter expert has said.
Professor Richard Moorhead, from the University of Exeter Law School, with other members of the Horizon Compensation Advisory Board, has said those affected, who feel traumatised, cannot put the situation behind them otherwise.
In a letter to Alex Chalk, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, members of the board – its Chair Professor Chris Hodges from the University of Oxford and The Rt Hon Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom, The Rt Hon Kevan Jones MP, and Professor Moorhead – say the only “viable approach” now is to overturn Horizon-related convictions.
This would affect almost 1,000 individuals. The letter says: “there could not have been such a massive outbreak of criminality amongst people who were, and remain, as a group of citizens, careful, law-abiding and trustworthy individuals.”
The letter says many victims “remain traumatised and ostracised by their communities.”
The Horizon Compensation Advisory Board’s work has been informed by research from the Post Office Project. Professor Moorhead leads this team based at the University of Exeter and UCL working to discover more about the Post Office scandal, and the role of lawyers in it. Ongoing work on false confessions by Dr Rebecca Helm, Dr Sally Day, Dr Karen Nokes and Dr Emily Spearing has aided an important part of the Board’s thinking. The ESRC-funded research involves building a detailed case study of what happened and identifying any professional or ethical failures that contributed to it. Researchers are interviewing those involved, including sub-postmasters.
The Horizon Compensation Advisory Board believe the convictions are unsafe because of “egregious systemic Post Office behaviour in interviews and pursuing prosecutions, vividly demonstrated” in evidence to the ongoing Williams Inquiry. The letter says: “this led to guilty pleas and false confessions, driven by legal advice to victims to minimise sentences, and by the psychological pressure of dealing with an institution systematically disregarding the truth and fairness.”
So far just 93 individuals have applied to have convictions overturned, and the board say this shows the current approach is not working.
The letter points out much evidence about the Horizon convictions has been lost or destroyed by the Post Office and people are unwilling to appeal because of their “understandable deep distrust of authority”. Court of Appeal rules also impose limitations on the Post Office’s ability to concede cases and unreliable evidence about other Post Office-related systems (and DWP payments) has still not been adequately examined and may never be.
In cases where Post Office concludes that a retrial would not be in the public interest convictions have been overturned but the postmaster is denied full compensation and left with an implication of continued guilt. The Board has already advised the Government this is unfair and re-victimises those affected.
The letter says: “For these reasons we believe the only viable approach is to overturn all 900+ Post Office-driven convictions from the Horizon period.”