UK court overturns convictions of 39 post office leaders

LONDON (AP) — Britain’s Court of Appeal has overturned the convictions of 39 people who ran local post offices and were accused of theft, fraud and false accounting following the installation, more than 20 years ago, of what turned out to be a defective computer system in local branches.

Announcing the court’s ruling on Friday, Lord Justice Timothy Holroyde said Britain’s postal service, the Post Office, “knew there were serious issues about the reliability” of the Horizon computer system developed by Fujitsu, and had a “clear duty to investigate” its defects.

“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,” the judge said.

The postmasters and postmistresses convicted have spent years, some up to 20, trying to clear their names, consistently arguing that the blame for the financial shortfalls identified lay in the computer system itself. Three appeals were dismissed because “the reliability of Horizon data was not essential to the prosecution case.”

Many of those convicted lost their jobs, homes and marriages, while others went to prison or were given suspended sentences.

Harjinder Butoy, who was convicted of theft and jailed for three years and four months in 2008, described the Post Office as “a disgrace” after his conviction was overturned.

Butoy, who ran a local post office in the north England city of Nottingham, said his conviction and imprisonment “destroyed” his life for 14 years.

“That’s not going to be replaced,” he said outside the Royal Courts of Justice, adding that those responsible “need to be punished, seriously punished.”

The overturning of the convictions is likely to pave the way for compensation claims from those who suffered unduly.

In a statement, Neil Hudgell from Hudgell Solicitors, who represented 29 of the former officials, said it is “almost impossible” to relay the impact on those caught up in the scandal.

“They are 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.

He called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to announce a “judge-led public inquiry,” with the power to summon witnesses.

“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,” he said.

Johnson welcomed the decision too, saying it was “an appalling injustice which has had a devastating impact on these families for years.”

“Lessons should and will be learnt to ensure this never happens again,” he said.

The Criminal Cases Review Commission, which investigates potential miscarriages of justice, encouraged any other former Post Office employees to consider challenging their convictions following the ruling.

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

Tom Hedges, who was convicted of theft and false accounting and given a seven-month suspended sentence in 2011, opened a bottle of prosecco outside the Royal Courts of Justice after his conviction was quashed.

He said his 93-year-old mother had recommended he celebrate with a bottle of the Italian sparkling wine.

“She said, ‘Just remember your name is Hedges not Rothschild, so get prosecco, not Bollinger!’”