Post Office scandal was an 'egregious' failure of legal system, say academics
A 'landmark' study of the lawyers who prosecuted victims in the Post Office Horizon scandal will 'prevent future injustices', its authors have claimed.
The study by the University of Exeter and University College London (UCL) aims to shed light on the impact of legal professionals involved in convicting scores of innocent post-office workers between 1999 and 2015.
Former counter clerk Tracy Felstead, from Telford, was wrongly jailed for six months in 2001 after being convicted of stealing more than £11,500 when she was aged 19. Rubbina Shaheen, who kept Greenfields post office in Shrewsbury, was wrongly jailed for 12 months in 2010 over a £43,000 shortfall in her accounts. Both convictions were overturned on appeal in 2021.
Staffordshire sub-postmasters Carl Page, jailed for two years in 2007, and Gillian Harrison, given a rehabilitation order in 2005, also had their convictions quashed.
The Government announced a compensation scheme in March this year for 555 victims of the scandal, who won a £43 million High Court settlement against the Post Office in 2019.
The High Court ruled that a glitch with the Post Office's computer database – known as Horizon – was likely to have created discrepancies in branch accounts.
Specialists leading the three-year project said it would help legal professionals to 'rethink' their methods and prevent future injustices.
Most of the prosecutions were brought privately, based on computer evidence presented by the Post Office, rather than going through the police and Crown Prosecution Service.
Karen Nokes, from UCL, said: “The scandal shows that when it works badly, the legal system, and lawyers in particular, can have egregious effects on ordinary people’s lives.
“Through our research with victims and lawyers, we plan to develop strategies that can be used to encourage lawyers to consider and, if necessary, rethink their own professional mindsets.”
The Post Office began installing Horizon accounting software in the late 1990s, but faults in the software led to shortfalls in accounts, which sparked demands on sub-postmasters to cover the difference.
Many were wrongfully prosecuted between 1999 and 2015 on charges of false accounting, theft and fraud.
Professor Richard Moorhead, from the University of Exeter, said: “The research will enable us to deepen our engagement with the victims affected by the scandal, ensure that the right lessons are learned about what went wrong and why, and work on practical strategies to reduce the chances of such terrible events happening again.”
Miss Felstead, now 40, of Bournside Drive, Brookside, Telford, said she had mixed feelings about the culpability of the legal system in her conviction.
She said the flawed evidence, and information withheld by the Post Office, was the prime reason for her conviction.
"I would like to think the case would have been thoroughly investigated had it been taken to the police, and I would like to think the prosecution would have been a lot different to how they were," she said.
But she added that her own legal team at the time did the best it could with the evidence it had been presented with.
"If you have got a company that is telling you its system is robust, and you have not got any evidence to go against it, is that the fault of the legal system?
"The protocol at the time was that the Post Office had its own prosecution service, and it withheld evidence that should have been presented to the court."