The Post Office supported a 1999 law change that eased prosecutions using computer evidence

The Post Office supported a change in 1999 in the way computer evidence was looked at by UK law, which later made it easier to prosecute subsidiary postmasters for theft and false accounting. Without this change in the law, it would have been difficult for the organization to use its powers of prosecution to convict subsidiary postal administrators who – more than 20 years later – had those convictions overturned due to computer defects.

In 1995, the Law Commission held a consultation, which sought comments from prosecuting organizations, on a proposal to change the rules for using computer evidence in court.

At the time, Section 69 of the Criminal Evidence and Police Act 1984 stipulated that computer evidence must be subject to proof that a computer system is operating properly. The Post Office, which has special prosecutorial powers, said this was “a bit cumbersome” when prosecuting people accused of crimes, such as sub-postmasters who manage and own its branches.

The Law Committee wanted to obtain feedback on proposals to change this and to make an assumption that the computer system was operating correctly unless there was explicit evidence to the contrary. The new law was adopted in 1999 and coincided with the introduction of the Horizon IT system, which automates accounting in thousands of post office branches.

In response to the advice, which was disclosed in response to a Freedom of Information (FoI) request filed by computer scientist Stephen Murdoch at University College London, the Post Office criminal law division said the rule at the time was “fairly burdensome from a prosecutor’s point of view.” “.

The defendant wrote at the Post Office: “I consider computer evidence, in principle, to be no different from any other kind of evidence and should, in general, be admissible, so that any argument in court is of its weight rather than its admissibility. I therefore consider it to be There should be a presumption that the machine is in working order etc and if the defense wishes to argue otherwise then they obviously should be able to do so.For now, I consider the evidentiary requirements to be very stringent and could hamper prosecutions “.

It wasn’t long after Horizon was introduced that Branch Post officials began reporting unexplained accounting deficiencies. Businessmen, who owned and operated branches of post offices, were held liable for losses if they could not prove otherwise.

Between the launch of Horizon in 2000 and 2015, the post office used its prosecution powers to prosecute 736 sub-postmasters for financial crimes. Many of these suspected and claimed that Horizon was responsible for the unexplained accounting deficit. The Post Office has consistently denied that Horizon could be responsible and sued subsidiary postal officials — thanks to changes to the law around computer-based evidence, which assumed Horizon was operating unless proven otherwise. Some people went to prison and many have lived with criminal records ever since.

In its response to a 1995 Law Commission consultation, first disclosed by the FoI, the Post Office wrote: “In the event that a sub-postmaster is sued for theft or mis-accounting, the Post Office may need to rely on computerized accounting records. Often it is The sub-postmaster is the only person who can provide the evidence required under Section 69 of [PACE]. In the absence of confessions or other direct evidence, the Post Office may not be able to prove the case solely on the basis of its inability to meet the technical requirements of Section 69 of the [PACE]. “

In 2009, an investigation into Computer Weekly revealed for the first time that sub-program managers were to blame for unexplained accounting shortfalls. Ten years later, a group of 555 branch postal officials won a class action lawsuit in the Supreme Court that established that errors in the Horizon system could cause unexplained losses, and that the post office was aware of the errors in the system.

Since then, the convictions of 72 branch postmasters who were convicted as a result of post office prosecutions have since been overturned, some 20 years later. Much is expected to follow.

In the latest batch of postal sub-managers having false convictions overturned, it turned out in court that the post office offered some of those accused of theft, the option to plead guilty to the offense of false accounting, but only if they did not state their suspicions that problems with Horizon were the cause of the shortfall.

Leave a reply:

Your email address will not be published.