Northern Ireland

Post Office Horizon scandal: South Armagh great-grandmother suffered ‘nine years of hell’

Patricia Fagan (78) pleaded guilty to false accounting, but conviction quashed after it is revealed Post Office failed to reveal extent of Horizon flaws

Former post officer worker Patricia Fagan, from Forkhill, Co Armagh in her Solictor's office in Newry
Patricia Fagan, from Forkhill/Dromintee, Co Armagh, who was convicted on two counts of false accounting in 2017 and given a nine-month suspended prison sentence. She was prosecuted over an alleged financial shortfall of up to £6,500 discovered three years previously at a Post Office branch where she worked. The conviction was quashed in 2023. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN (Mal McCann)

It was close to nine years from when the finger of suspicion was first pointed at post office employee Patricia Fagan to when a court cleared her of all criminal wrongdoing.

During that time, the now 78-year-old south Armagh great-grandmother lost her job, her confidence was shattered and she became a widow following the death of her biggest supporter and ally, husband Raymond.

Former post officer worker Patricia Fagan, from Forkhill, Co Armagh in her Solictor's office in Newry
Patricia Fagan, from Dromintee/Forkhill, Co Armagh, (Mal McCann)

“It was hell,” says Mrs Fagan, who worked with the sub-postmaster of Dromintee Post Office for 12 years before that day she was told she could no longer come behind the counter of the premises.

A PSNI investigation was launched after a shortfall of approximately £6,500 was discovered following an audit by the Post Office.

But key to the final quashing of the conviction in February last year was a crucial document the Post Office refused to turn over to the police during the investigation into Mrs Fagan, said her solicitor Anne-Marie Featherstone, of Rafferty’s in Newry.

Mrs Fagan, a mother-of-three, grandmother and great-grandmother, and a hugely respected member of the bordering communities of Dromintee and Forkhill, is one of the hundreds of post offices operators and employees caught up in the most widespread miscarriage of justice in UK history.

“It was hell. I stopped driving, I would not go out anywhere, if I had to go shopping someone had to go with me. I lost all my confidence, I could not the get it back and still haven’t and won’t. I will never get it back now,” Mrs Fagan explains.

Former post officer worker Patricia Fagan, from Forkhill, Co Armagh in her Solictor's office in Newry
Patricia Fagan with her solicitor Anne-Marie Featherstone, PICTURE: MAL MCCANN (Mal McCann)

For years Mrs Fagan, who shared responsibilities with the sub-postmaster, had flagged discrepancies in the Horizon computer system. From the start of her employment in 2002, she kept noticing shortfalls that could not be explained.

“It might be a £100 or so, then it started to get a lot more,” said Mrs Fagan, adding she kept insisting the auditors should be brought in.

In the meantime, the post office was robbed at gunpoint while she was behind the counter. That was just before Christmas 2009.

It was early summer 2014 when the nightmare really began. Auditors had discovered a discrepancy in the accounts. Mrs Fagan’s signature was on some documents.

When she arrived to help with the audit, the sub-postmaster told her she could not step behind the counter and that the police will want to talk to her. She never worked there again.

But then silence. No-one contacted her and a couple of visits to the post office to find out the situation did not bring any more information.

Nearly a year later, in May 2015, the police arrived at her home she shared with Raymond. She was invited for a formal interview at the imposing Ardmore Police Station in Newry.

There are documents later uncovered by the defence that reveal Post Office reluctance to investigate further in order to potentially clear Mrs Fagan. There are also written claims by the government-owned company that data could not be retrieved from the Horizon system beyond six months.

Ms Featherstone is still unclear whether this is factual.

In interviews with the police, Mrs Fagan was questioned about documents she signed when knowing there was a discrepancy. She told them several times there was a problem with the system, an insistence that will be crucial when it came to quashing the conviction.

Mrs Fagan was arrested on suspicion of false representation and false accounting, later facing two counts of false accounting.

“It was not necessarily theft but it was ‘where was it, if it is not in the system, where was it’ and it had to be me.

“It had to be me or the system and who was going to blame that system, nobody was going to say the system is wrong, but it was wrong.”

She adds: “In general, everyone that knew me well knew I would not, no way would have done anything like that.”

This support did not stop her walking the floors of the couple’s home, crying, when “Raymond was asleep so I would not annoy him. Then he got sick”.

Robert Andrew Hall appeared at Belfast Crown Court
Patricia Fagan pleaded guilty in the Crown Court, with her conviction quashed by the Court of Appeal

It was not until late 2016 Mrs Fagan finally appeared in court, where she pleaded not guilty to the two charges. The case was moved to the Crown Court.

In March 2017, she pleaded guilty to the two charges of false accounting, receiving a nine-month sentence on each count, to run concurrently, suspended for two years.

“There was no pressure from my family, they were all backing me but I felt, thought, it was the best way out of it,” she explains. There were also her signatures linked to the shortfalls.

Ahead of sentencing, her defence submitted a large bundle of documents containing research on the Post Office and Fujitsu’s Horizon system.

The flawed Horizon system, which led to the wrongful conviction of numerous sub-postmasters, was provided by Japan-based company Fujitsu, which has many other contracts with the Government
The flawed Horizon system, which led to the wrongful conviction of numerous sub-postmasters, was provided by Japan-based company Fujitsu, which has many other contracts with the Government (Kirsty O'Connor/PA)

It contained publicly available information on the serious problems with the system. Numerous articles had been written, BBC’s Panorama had investigated the scandal, and this was eight years since that first 2009 meeting of the sub-postmasters in England.

Mrs Fagan was now a convicted criminal, the suspended sentence hanging over her, with the fear if she made any wrong move she could end up in prison.

“That is what I said to my grandson, what do you think of your granny having a criminal record. ‘Well I still love you’, he says.

“But that was one thing that worried me, when my grandchildren were going to school that someone would say to them and starting fighting or something, I was worried about that. It would cause trouble at school for them.”

In January 2022, Mrs Fagan’s biggest supporter and ally, Raymond, died. He did not live to see his wife entirely exonerated.

Patricia Fagan's husband Raymond was her biggest ally and supporter during a near nine-year nightmare
Raymond Fagan died before his wife was exonerated

The process of clearing Mrs Fagan was swift and unprecedented, said Ms Featherstone, who wrote a letter in the summer of 2022 to the Public Prosecution Service asking for a review of the case.

Within weeks, the office had replied and invited her to appeal the convictions. By February, Mrs Fagan was in a court being told the convictions were quashed after her counsel successfully argued the Post Office failed to disclose the flaws in the Horizon system. There was an abuse of process.

At the heart of the case was that document the Post Office refused to hand over to police, said Ms Featherstone.

When asked by police whether there were any problems with Horizon, the Post Office told investigators that experts had looked at the system and found there were no problems beyond a few glitches.

The Post Office did not hand this report over and were not forced to ahead of Mrs Fagan pleading guilty to the charges, said Ms Featherstone.

Fujitsu Europe director Paul Patterson giving evidence to the Business and Trade Committee
Post Office refused to hand over crucial document on Horizon system to police, Patricia Fagan's solicitor said (Aaron Chown/PA)

Ms Featherstone has not seen this report but believes prosecutors must have had sight of it prior to inviting Mrs Fagan to appeal the convictions and then not opposing her application in court.

The PPS did not directly address claims in relation to the report but said the Post Office “withheld from investigators the true extent of problems with the Horizon system”.

“The PPS therefore wrote to solicitors for Ms Fagan...and invited her to bring an appeal which would not be opposed by the prosecution. This subsequently occurred and the convictions were quashed.”

The PSNI said it could not comment on named individuals but asked that no inference should be drawn, while the Post Office said it did not want to comment outside of the public inquiry.

Crucial to Ms Fagan’s case was that she repeatedly insisted in police interviews it was not her but the system at fault.

Mrs Fagan has not yet watched Mr Bates vs the Post Office, for “just at the minute it is too raw and I am on my own and I said well I am not going to watch that on my own”. It infuriated members of her family who did watch.

Toby Jones as Alan Bates in the ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office
Toby Jones plays Alan Bates in the powerful ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office (©ITV)

In the wake of the quashing of the conviction, and the broadcasting of the television shows, lots of people were in touch expressing support and condolences, including the local post man.

“The postman dropped off a box of chocolates, a box of Dairy Milk,” Mrs Fagan remembers.