She’s distraught, understandably – she’s there to be prosecuted for theft and fraud, with her future hanging in the balance.
She’s insisting she’s innocent of the offences on the summons. She would have said that she has never stolen so much as a penny, and isn’t a dishonest person.
I, of course, explained the weight of evidence and the implications of a conviction for those offences after trial, so there was little wonder when the prosecutor offered a lesser offence of false accounting, my client accepted that as an alternative to an inevitable prison sentence.
She would need to persuade the probation officer that she would never again repeat her offending. She thought that easy, given that she wasn’t culpable at all anyway.
Janet Skinner had been working at her local post office in Hull when the sub-postmaster announced her decision to retire and offered Janet the chance to take it over.
Sub-postmasters manage individual Post Office branches on a franchise system, so this was Janet’s route to running her own business and holding a position of standing and trust at the heart of her community.
It was too good to pass up, but her choice would begin a chain of events leading to her meeting me in the magistrates’ court, and her eventual imprisonment.
The Court of Appeal, London, 2021. Janet Skinner is among 39 former sub-postmasters whose names are cleared after a long and painful fight for justice.
I know this has been a great relief to Janet, but it never should have come to this.
The case of the sub-postmasters is one the greatest miscarriages of justice in modern Britain.
They were accused of fraud and theft when the Post Office’s faulty IT system, Horizon, manufactured by Fujitsu, would mistakenly show shortfalls in the day’s takings, sometimes running to thousands of pounds.
Turning to the Post Office for assistance, they would, astonishingly, be told to plug the gap with their own money, leaving many with crushing debts and bankruptcy. Others were told to balance the book by making up transactions that had never happened.
To add insult to injury, the Post Office prosecuted thousands of sub-postmasters, an average of one a week, for false accounting and fraud, using evidence from the Horizon system which they knew to be fatally flawed.
Sub-postmasters’ reputations were destroyed, marriages broke down, and lives were ruined beyond repair. Three former sub-postmasters died before their criminal conviction could be overturned.
But the Horizon scandal is not simply a tale of faulty technology, an unfortunate accident where no one is to blame. The Post Office used its powers to bring private prosecutions, effectively acting as investigator and prosecutor without any effective oversight. All while Post Office chief executive Paula Vennells scooped up £3.7m in salary and bonuses over six years.
Sub-postmasters and the wider public deserve answers and accountability, including from government, who have sat on their hands whilst the scandal worsened. Decent men and women of good character were put through hell by Post Office Ltd through prosecutions which should never have been brought.
Ministers have been full of warm words for the Horizon victims, but progress has come through court battles, not government action. That must change, because whilst the court’s ruling was a high point, it is not the end of the road – the Justice for Sub-Postmasters Alliance estimates that there are over 800 individuals still waiting to have their names cleared.
Having briefly represented Janet Skinner as her lawyer, I have tried to represent former sub-postmasters as a Member of Parliament. That’s why I was there at the Court of Appeal. Not robed and gowned, but in the public gallery to witness the landmark ruling.
The damning judgment of the court makes it clear to me both as a lawyer and as a legislator that things must change. We need a proper, judge-led, statutory inquiry for the full truth to come out –one with the legal power to compel key witnesses to give evidence. A whitewash review that ends with an empty promise that “lessons will be learned” would be unacceptable.
The findings of a statutory review will, I fear, point to criminality. If that is right, those that were culpable for the cover-up should be themselves investigated, and if the evidence is established they should be prosecuted, and if convicted should expect heavy custodial sentences.
Karl Turner is Labour MP for Hull East and Shadow Minister for Legal Aid.
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