UK

Post Office ‘bound’ to oppose half of subpostmasters’ appeals, CEO told minister

Post Office boss Nick Read said lawyers had identified 369 convictions based on evidence unrelated to the faulty Horizon computer system.

The Post Office denied seeking to persuade the Government against a mass exoneration of subpostmasters
Post Office The Post Office denied seeking to persuade the Government against a mass exoneration of subpostmasters (James Manning/PA)

The Post Office told the Government it would oppose appeals in more than half the cases of subpostmasters convicted of fraud, documents have revealed.

In a letter sent to Justice Secretary Alex Chalk at the start of the year, Post Office chief executive Nick Read said the company “would be bound to oppose an appeal” in at least 369 of the 700 cases it had prosecuted.

The letter, sent shortly after the broadcast of the ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office, said the cases “involve convictions obtained by reliance on evidence unrelated to the Horizon computer system” and represented a “much more significant” proportion of the prosecutions than those the company was likely to concede in court.

The Post Office denied the letter, first reported by The Guardian, had been intended to persuade ministers against a mass exoneration of subpostmasters, and said it was sent “without any value judgment on what the correct course of action might be”.

Referring to plans to accelerate the exoneration of subpostmasters convicted during the Horizon scandal, Mr Read said the Post Office “has a duty to ensure that any decisions which may be taken by the Government are fully informed”.

He said the reliance on other evidence in the 369 cases “clearly raises acute political, judicial and communications challenges against the very significant public and parliamentary pressure for some form of acceleration or bypassing of the normal appeals process”.

In an attached note from lawyers Peters and Peters, solicitor Nick Vamos said it was “highly likely that the vast majority of people who have not yet appealed were, in fact, guilty as charged and were safely convicted”.

He added: “Unless this is made clear to the Government, it risks making incredibly important and expensive decisions on a completely false premise.

Post Office chief executive Nick Read
Post Office Horizon IT scandal Post Office chief executive Nick Read (House of Commons/PA)

“I am sure this point has been or is being made to whoever is briefing Alex Chalk, but I also know that points can be misunderstood or watered down by the time they reach a minister, and this is one point that cannot be made strongly enough.”

The Post Office said the legal note was “not solicited” by the company and “was sent to express the personal views of its author”.

In a statement on its website, the Post Office said: “Post Office was in no way seeking to persuade the Government against mass exoneration.

“Post Office are fully supportive of any steps taken by Government to speed up the exoneration of those with wrongful convictions and to provide redress to victims, with the information having been provided to inform that consideration.”

The publication of the letter on the Post Office’s website came as business minister Kevin Hollinrake announced further details of planned legislation to exonerate subpostmasters convicted during the Horizon scandal.

As well as requirements relating to people eligible for exoneration under the legislation, Mr Hollinrake said those affected would have to sign a statement to the effect that they did not commit the crime for which they were convicted before they could receive financial redress.

If they were subsequently found to have signed the statement falsely, Mr Hollinrake said the “may be guilty of fraud”.

He added: “As noted in my statement on 10 January, the legislation is likely to exonerate a number of people who were, in fact, guilty of a crime. The Government accepts that this is a price worth paying in order to ensure that many innocent people are exonerated.”

According to Mr Read’s letter, the 369 cases were identified as part of work undertaken to “identify potential appeals against convictions which… we would be highly likely to concede in court”.

The work conducted by Peters and Peters identified 30 potential cases, on top of the 142 already resolved and five awaiting consideration, along with 132 cases where the Post Office said more information was needed.

In his letter, Mr Read said: “We make absolutely no value judgment about what you and your colleagues determine as the right course of action, but consider it essential for you to understand the very real and sensitive complexities presented (in) each case.”