BBC Panorama - Our response
The Post Office wholly rejects extremely serious allegations repeated in BBC’s Panorama programme of 17 August 2015. The allegations are based on partial, selective and misleading information.
- The Post Office does not prosecute people for making innocent mistakes and never has
- There is no evidence that faults with the computer system caused money to go missing at these Post Office branches
- There is evidence that user actions, including dishonest conduct, were responsible for missing money
We are sorry if a small number of people feel they have not been treated fairly in the past but we have gone to enormous lengths to re-investigate their cases, doing everything and more than we committed to do.
All of the allegations presented in the programme have been exhaustively investigated and tested by the Post Office and various specialists over the past three years or more. The unsubstantiated claims and theories that continue to be levelled against the Post Office are at odds with the facts and are constructed from highly partial, selective and inaccurate information.
This is about individual cases and the Post Office will not discuss those in public for very good reason. The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) is reviewing a small number of cases involving criminal convictions. It will be provided with all available information including confidential legal material not available to others and we believe the CCRC should be allowed to complete its reviews without external comment. We also gave a commitment of confidentiality to people who put forward cases to us for re-investigation.
The Horizon computer system is robust and effective in dealing with the six million transactions put through the system every day by our postmasters and employees at 11,500 Post Office branches. It is independently audited and meets or exceeds industry accreditations.
The Post Office has always taken its duty to act fairly, proportionately and with the public interest in mind extremely seriously. The Prosecutions it brings are scrutinised by defence lawyers before they advise their clients and are, ultimately, ruled upon by the courts.
If money is missing from a Post Office branch and the fact that cash is missing has been dishonestly disguised by falsifying figures in the branch accounts, the Post Office is entitled to take action and does so based on the facts and circumstances of that specific case. Though rare, where there is evidence of criminal conduct, a decision may be made to prosecute.
Prosecutions are brought to determine whether there was criminal conduct in a branch, not for the Post Office’s financial considerations.
Post Office prosecutors are all experienced criminal lawyers, many of whom have significant experience in prosecuting for both Post Office and the Crown Prosecution Service. In the rare instances that prosecutions are undertaken, the Post Office follows the Code for Crown Prosecutors (the same code as the Crown Prosecution Service). The Code requires a prosecution to have sufficient evidence and be in the public interest, both of which are kept under review right up to and including any trial. It means there must be sufficient evidence for each charge - if a theft charge is brought, there must be sufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of a conviction for theft.
A charge upon which there is no evidence will inevitably fail. It is the duty of the defence lawyers to identify to the court where there is insufficient evidence to sustain a charge. If the court agrees then the Judge must dismiss that charge.
The Post Office takes extremely seriously any allegation that there may have been a miscarriage of justice. We have seen no evidence to support this allegation. The Post Office has a continuing duty after a prosecution has concluded to disclose any information that subsequently comes to light which might undermine its prosecution or support the case of the defendant and continues to act in compliance with that duty.
The Horizon Computer System
Horizon is robust and effective in dealing with the six million transactions put through the system every day by our postmasters and employees at 11,500 Post Office branches. It is independently audited and meets or exceeds industry accreditations. There have been 500,000 users of the system since it was introduced.
Nevertheless, rigorous re-investigations were undertaken into claims made by 136 mainly former postmasters that the system caused losses in their branches.
There is overwhelming evidence that the losses complained of were caused by user actions, including in some cases deliberate dishonest conduct. The investigations have not identified any transaction caused by a technical fault in Horizon which resulted in a postmaster wrongly being held responsible for a loss of money.
There is also no evidence of transactions recorded by branches being altered through ‘remote access’ to the system. Transactions as they are recorded by branches cannot be edited and the Panorama programme did not show anything that contradicts this.
Resolution of cases
The Post Office was approached in 2012 by a small number of largely former Postmasters and MPs with the concern that faults in the Horizon computer system had caused losses at their Post Office branches.
In response the Post Office set up an independent inquiry and, when that found nothing wrong with the system, established a scheme to enable people to put forward individual complaints, providing financial support to those making claims so that they could obtain independent professional advice.
There were 150 cases put forward, 43 of which involved criminal convictions.
A number of the cases are now resolved, through mediation or otherwise, and the remainder of cases where the courts have not previously ruled have been put forward for mediation.
Mediation is overseen by the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR), an established leading and entirely independent organisation. Those who have been offered mediation can still exercise their available rights if mediation is not successful – mediation itself doesn’t stop that.
Mediation cannot overturn a previous court ruling – only the courts can do so.