Dernière actualité pour les fans : The Observer view on the Post Office scandal: these innocent victims deserve justice | Observer editorial

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The Criminal Cases Review Commission has described it as the most widespread miscarriage of justice it has ever seen. On one side is the Post Office, wholly owned by the government and ultimately accountable to the business secretary and prime minister, and its giant multinational IT subcontractor Fujitsu. On the other, the hundreds of post office operators who were convicted of false accounting, theft and fraud as a result of bug-ridden software that wrongly made it look as though money had disappeared on their watch – and who were aggressively pursued through the courts by the Post Office.

People took their own lives, countless more had their lives and businesses ruined by prosecutions and convictions, and many were sent to prison despite their innocence. Years later, some have died before receiving any compensation amid significant delays, hundreds of unsafe convictions are still to be overturned, and those responsible are yet to be held properly accountable.

The faulty Horizon software had inauspicious beginnings as a 1996 private finance initiative to digitise the collection of pensions and benefits at post offices, a project that was scrapped three years later at a cost of £700m after it was beset with problems. The Post Office decided to repurpose its investment into an IT system for branch accounting, despite “serious doubts” among its board of directors as to its reliability.

Those doubts were well founded. The faulty software generated data that wrongly indicated money was disappearing from post offices. There was no way for their owners to manually reconcile these errors and Fujitsu, which by then owned the software, mischaracterised them as user errors. When post office operators reported them, they were often told they were the only people experiencing any problems.

The Post Office used private prosecution – a means for any individual or corporation to bring a criminal prosecution against someone else – to bully post office operators into admitting wrongdoing. Its investigators and lawyers threatened to prosecute post office operators for the more serious crime of theft unless they pleaded guilty to false accounting and accepted liability for the fake losses, often tens of thousands of pounds, created by software glitches, based on no evidence other than the Horizon records.

Some who did this were still sent to prison; others who refused were sent to prison after being convicted of theft and fraud. Seema Misra spent four months in prison while pregnant, despite her innocence. The Post Office, motivated by recovering this imaginary money at any cost, failed to disclose relevant evidence that would have helped people clear their name. It conducted well over 700 prosecutions between 2000 and 2014, despite internal knowledge of Horizon’s unreliability.

The slow wheels of justice have only started to turn, thanks to the tenacity of post office operators determined to show that the blame lay with the Post Office and Fujitsu; 584 claimants led by Alan Bates brought a civil case for damages including financial loss, harassment and unjust enrichment, which the Post Office eventually settled in 2019, and 39 post office operators had their criminal convictions overturned by the court of appeal in 2021 (three posthumously). The Post Office and Fujitsu have conducted themselves appallingly during these legal proceedings, doing their best to obstruct justice at every opportunity through misleading the court, presenting incorrect information and withholding evidence; the Post Office even tried to remove the judge in the civil case by attempting to get him thrown out for bias, resulting in criticism from the court of appeal. It is only thanks to this legal action that the government established a statutory inquiry into the scandal.

But justice remains a distant prospect for most victims. A small fraction of these wrongful convictions have been overturned; they require the Post Office’s victims to present positive evidence of their innocence to the court of appeal, despite the fact that the records which would enable them to do so in many cases no longer exist. And why should the onus be on them to pursue this individually anyway, given everything we know about how the Post Office conducted itself? The multiple compensation schemes being administered by the government and – extraordinarily inappropriately – by the Post Office – have become mired in bureaucracy and delay.

While the inquiry is doing a thorough job of taking evidence to establish who bears responsibility for this terrible miscarriage of justice, the individuals in question are yet to be held accountable. After last week’s ITV dramatisation of the scandal – which has played an important role in raising public awareness – the Metropolitan police said they had commenced a criminal fraud investigation in relation to the Post Office; they were already investigating two Fujitsu experts in relation to perjury and perverting the course of justice. The Post Office’s former chief executive Paula Vennells – in post for the final years of its prosecutions and ultimately responsible for its ongoing obstruction of justice – collected more than £4.5m in pay during her tenure, £2.2m of which was performance-related bonuses. She was also awarded a CBE in 2019, which she should hand back without further delay.

There are bigger questions at stake: for the legal profession; about corporate governance; and about the lack of checks and balances on private prosecutions, which enabled the Post Office to use the criminal justice system to persecute innocent people for its own financial gain, a gross conflict of interest. But the most urgent imperative is justice for the innocent men and women caught up in this scandal. Parliament and the courts must find a way of overturning every unsafe conviction en masse, and any individuals responsible for criminal wrongdoing must face the consequences in court.

Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 250 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at observer.letters@observer.co.uk

Bibliographie :

Des conspirations et de la justice politique/IV,Le livre .

La Cour d’assises,Ouvrage .

Quand la justice crée l’insécurité,Ouvrage .

Author: Maurice GLAIN