Post Office legal boss withheld details from statutory body reviewing miscarriages of justice

The Post Office general counsel failed to give the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) evidence that would have identified the biggest miscarriage of justice years earlier.

In a 2014 response to a CCRC request for an update on a Post Office review of its own prosecution strategy and processes, Chris Aujard, interim general council at the time, left out details that would have raised serious concerns over the safety of Post Office prosecutions.

In May that year, the CCRC was chasing the Post Office legal team for information about the review of its prosecution strategy and processes.

The review, carried out by Brian Altman KC, followed concerns being raised about the integrity of the Post Office Horizon system after a report by independent forensic investigations firm Second Sight.

The following month, Aujard signed and approved a letter providing an update to the CCRC, but failed to include Altman’s findings, which revealed serious flaws in the Post Office’s prosecutions. These included the fact that the expert witness used in trials had been found by lawyers contracted by the Post Office to have given misleading evidence.

During the latest Post Office Horizon scandal public inquiry hearing, Flora Page, a barrister representing victims of the scandal, referred to Aujard’s letter to the CCRC. The letter confirmed that Altman had completed his “review of the Post Office’s strategy and process for reviewing past/current prosecutions”.

Signed by Aujard, it said: “As you would expect, Mr Altman’s review was thorough, leading to a detailed report, and I am pleased to confirm that overall, his view was that the review (carried out on behalf of the Post Office by an external firm of criminal specialist solicitors) was fundamentally sound, and he did not detect any systemic or significant flaws in the review process, or in the evidence arising from it.”

Details omitted

But the letter failed to give details of Altman’s findings of major flaws in the Post Office’s prosecutions strategy and processes. During Page’s questioning of Aujard, she said: “[The letter] is devoid of any mention of then issues that the CCRC really needed to know about, isn’t it?”

It failed to mention advice given in July 2013 by barrister Simon Clarke (Clarke Advice) that expert witness Gareth Jenkins of Fujitsu had given misleading evidence in court trials, which was mentioned repeatedly by Altman in his review, nor did it mention the controversial Seema Misra case, which was mentioned 15 times in the Altman review, according to Page.

“You accepted that the contents of the Clarke advice was startling,” she said. “There is nothing of that startling nature [in this letter] is there? This is a bland, reassuring letter aimed at making sure it would all just go away. This is a response that said it’s peachy, everything is fine, isn’t it?”

Aujard said the letter to the CCRC was in response to a specific request made to his predecessor, Susan Crichton, which he picked up. “This is the advice I had at the time from Brian Altman KC and Cartwright King [solicitors],” he said. “It reflected the totality of my understanding at the time.”

Paul Marshall, a barrister who represented the subpostmasters who successfully overturned wrongful convictions by the Post Office, said: ” To describe [Aujard’s letter]  as ‘sanitised’ would be masterful understatement.”

“It is telling that when eventually the Court of Appeal provided a copy of the Clarke Advice to the CCRC in November 2020, the CCRC’s response was to raise the possibility that it might be provided to the Metropolitan Police.”

It was almost two years later, and following Second Sight’s full Horizon investigation report – which included such criticisms as the Post Office being too quick to take legal action, rather than get to the bottom of the causes of unexplained accounting shortfalls – that the CCRC officially began reviewing subpostmasters’ claims of wrongful prosecution. It was nearly five more years before the first wrongful subpostmaster convictions were overturned.

Between 2000 and 2015, more than 700 subpostmasters were convicted of crimes such as fraud and theft, based on evidence from the Horizon retail and accounting system used in branches, which in 2019 was proved in the High Court to be prone to errors. Over 100 wrongful convictions have so far been overturned, and the government has introduced legislation to overturn the remainder.

The Post Office scandal was first exposed by Computer Weekly in 2009, revealing the stories of seven subpostmasters and the problems they suffered due to accounting software (see timeline of Computer Weekly articles below).

• Also read: What you need to know about the Horizon scandal

• Also watch: ITV’s documentary – Mr Bates vs The Post Office: The real story


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