POST OFFICE is facing criticism for failing to provide sufficient guidance and training to prosecutors involved in investigating branch operators accused of misconduct in the Horizon IT scandal, reported The Guardian.
This revelation comes from criminal prosecutions expert, Duncan Atkinson KC, as part of the ongoing inquiry into the scandal.
Atkinson is a lawyer with expertise in criminal and public law, having previously served as a senior counsel for the Treasury. He is the criminal prosecutions expert witness in the inquiry.
From 1999 to 2015, more than 700 post office operators in England and Wales were prosecuted for offenses like theft, fraud, and false accounting, primarily due to issues with the Horizon accounting software installed in the late 1990s.
To date, 86 individuals have had their wrongful convictions overturned, and the government has paid out £21 million in compensation.
The ongoing inquiry, led by retired high court judge Sir Wyn Williams, is currently focused on the period between 2000 and 2013.
In a scathing report published concurrently with his testimony, Atkinson raised concerns about the adequacy of Post Office policies related to investigations and prosecutions.
Specifically, he highlighted a ‘lack of explicit instruction’ for investigators and prosecutors to pursue all reasonable lines of inquiry, regardless of whether they pointed toward or away from the suspect, as required under the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act (CPIA) code. Atkinson emphasised that this duty is vital for ensuring a fair trial.
Atkinson stated, “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 reference this requirement until 2010, which Atkinson regarded as a significant omission.
The consequences of the wrongful convictions have been severe, with every individual affected set to receive £600,000 in compensation from the government. Some wrongfully convicted individuals served time in prison, and the scandal has been linked to four suicides, according to reports.
Atkinson’s examination also scrutinised whether investigators and prosecutors working for the Post Office adhered to CPIA and Police and Criminal Evidence Act (Pace) codes. He concluded that the policy landscape for a significant period was insufficient to ensure consistent and comprehensive compliance with these key regulations.
Furthermore, Atkinson expressed concerns about the adequacy of policy guidance to achieve a proper division of responsibility, ensuring independence, transparency, accountability, and consistency in decision-making.
Atkinson’s report highlighted a lack of guidance from the Post Office on which charges to prefer, and he questioned the statutory basis for prosecuting these offenses.
In particular, he criticised the Post Office’s focus on whether individuals operating the Horizon system had received training to use it correctly, rather than considering the possibility of system-related issues that could affect the reliability of evidence.
The inquiry into the Horizon scandal has been ongoing for three years, becoming a statutory inquiry in June 2021. In August that year, the Post Office’s chief executive, Nick Read, announced he would return a bonus of £54,400 linked to the inquiry.
He acknowledged “procedural and governance mistakes” made by the Post Office regarding bonus payments tied to work related to the inquiry. It was revealed that executives received approximately £1.6m in bonus payments after the scandal emerged.