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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Julia Kollewe

Post Office failed to train Horizon investigators properly, says criminal expert

Post Office branch with woman pulling a red suitcase walking by while on the phone
More than 700 post office operators were prosecuted in England and Wales between 1999 and 2015 for theft, fraud and false accounting. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images

The Post Office did not provide adequate guidance and training to prosecutors who investigated branch operators accused of wrongdoing in the Horizon IT scandal, according to a criminal prosecutions expert.

More than 700 post office operators were prosecuted in England and Wales between 1999 and 2015 for theft, fraud and false accounting because of faulty accounting software installed in the late 1990s.

So far, 86 have had their wrongful convictions overturned and £21m has been paid in compensation after what has been described as “the most widespread miscarriage of justice in UK history”.

An inquiry into the scandal led by the retired high court judge Sir Wyn Williams is looking at the period between 2000 and 2013.

In a damning report published to coincide with his testimony on Thursday, Duncan Atkinson KC, the inquiry’s criminal prosecutions expert witness, said: “I have reviewed the Post Office policies in relation to investigation, prosecution and related areas, and have concerns as to their adequacy to achieve these objectives.”

In particular, he said there was a “lack of explicit instruction” to investigators and prosecutors to ensure that they should pursue all reasonable lines of inquiry, whether these pointed “towards or away from the suspect”, as required under the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act (CPIA) code. “This duty is of central importance to the securing of a fair trial.”

Appearing before Williams, Atkinson said: “It is in my view fundamental that that is a guiding light to any investigation and any review of any investigation.” However, the Post Office’s policy did not refer to this until 2010. “That is a serious omission,” he said.

Every Post Office operator whose wrongful conviction has been overturned will receive £600,000 in compensation from the government. However, some spent time in prison, and the scandal has been linked to four suicides.

As the owner of the Post Office, the government is responsible for funding compensation payments.

Atkinson looked at whether investigators and prosecutors acting for the Post Office had complied with the CPIA and Police and Criminal Evidence Act (Pace) codes, and concluded: “The policy landscape for a significant period was not sufficient to ensure consistent and comprehensive compliance with a number of important aspects of the Pace and CPIA regimes”.

He told the inquiry that he also had “concerns about the adequacy of policy guidance to achieve a proper division of responsibility so as to achieve independence, transparency, accountability and consistency”.

“Post Office policies left it open for the same person, or group of persons, to make key investigation and prosecution decisions,” said Atkinson. He criticised the “lack of detailed guidance as to how … compliance with proper standards was to be achieved or monitored”.

Atkinson is a barrister who specialises in crime and public law, and a former senior Treasury counsel. An expert witness is often appointed by a public inquiry to give an opinion on matters which call for expert skill and knowledge.

Atkinson said in the report that there was a lack of guidance provided by the Post Office on which charges to prefer, and that he was unable to identify a statutory basis for the prosecution of offences.

He said that in the Post Office’s policy relating to the Horizon system, “the focus would still be on whether the person operating the system had had the training to use it with a view to establishing that they therefore should have been able to operate it correctly.

“Rather than any consideration of whether, despite their training, there was an issue that was beyond their control in relation to the reliability of the evidence from the system … without considering the other possibility that was always potentially there, namely that there was a problem with the system, not them.”

The inquiry began three years ago. It became a statutory inquiry in June 2021. In August this year, Nick Read, the Post Office’s chief executive, said he would return a bonus of £54,400 linked to the inquiry into the Horizon scandal.

He apologised for “procedural and governance mistakes” made by the Post Office that had linked significant bonus payments to work carried out in relation to the inquiry. After the scandal, it emerged that about £1.6m in bonus payments had been made to executives.

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