Post Office lobbied for law change to make it easier to hound staff caught up in IT scandal, letter reveals
- Law Commission sought feedback of rule change on computer evidence in court
- Head of the Post Office’s criminal law division wrote to legal watchdog in 1995
- Any person or firm had to prove the computer system was operating properly
- But the Post Office said that this was ‘far too strict and can hamper prosecutions’
The Post Office lobbied for a crucial law change which made it easier to pursue postmasters wrongly accused in the firm’s IT scandal.
The head of the company’s criminal law division wrote to Britain’s legal watchdog in 1995 and said existing rules on the use of computer evidence in trials were ‘somewhat onerous’.
The letter came as the Law Commission was seeking feedback from organisations on a proposed change to the rules on using computer evidence in court.
At the time, any firm or individual relying on such evidence had to prove that the computer system was operating properly.
The head of the company’s criminal law division wrote to Britain’s legal watchdog in 1995 and said existing rules on the use of computer evidence in trials were ‘somewhat onerous’ [File photo]
But the Post Office said this was ‘far too strict and can hamper prosecutions’. It urged the Law Commission to relax the rules, which would make it easier to prosecute individuals on the basis of computer evidence.
And the calls from the Post Office, which were echoed by the likes of BT and the Inland Revenue, were heeded.
In 1999 – the year the company introduced its Horizon IT system – the law was changed to introduce a presumption that computer systems were working correctly.
But Horizon, it emerged years later, had not been running as it should. More than 700 postmasters were wrongly prosecuted in what has been dubbed one of the UK’s biggest miscarriages of justice. They were accused of theft and false accounting and some were sent to prison.
Jo Hamilton, a grandmother who was forced to re-mortgage her home after being accused of theft by the Post Office, said: ‘The law change covered their backsides and made life a hell of a lot easier for them when they came after us’
It has taken almost 20 years for those victims to prove that the IT system was to blame for the missing money.
Though the Post Office’s letter to the Law Commission was written before Horizon was introduced, it has rankled postmasters who feel that the firm was preparing to bring in an IT system and wanted to cover its back should any problems appear.
Jo Hamilton, a grandmother who was forced to re-mortgage her home after being accused of theft by the Post Office, said: ‘The law change covered their backsides and made life a hell of a lot easier for them when they came after us. I’m not surprised by this – I’m just so furious with them.’
Andy Furey, the national officer for postmasters at the Communication Workers Union, said prior to Horizon, the Post Office did not have any automation so the timing of the letter ‘feels very premeditated and calculated’.
The Post Office said the submissions to the Law Commission were made at a time when the firm was owned by the Royal Mail. It added the Horizon system was not introduced until 1999, four years after the letter to the watchdog.
Retired High Court judge Sir Wyn Williams is leading an independent inquiry into the Post Office scandal.