He spent three months in jail – for a crime he insists he didn’t commit – and has kept his criminal conviction a secret from the majority of his family – including his mother - for the past 18 years, such his feeling of ‘shame and embarrassment’.
He spent three months in jail – for a crime he insists he didn’t commit – and has kept his criminal conviction a secret from the majority of his family – including his mother – for the past 18 years, such his feeling of ‘shame and embarrassment’.
Even now, he insists he doesn’t want his full name published in any article – that he says he will save for the day his conviction for theft from the Post Office he ran for over a decade is finally overturned.
Father-of-four Peter, 61, is one of potentially as many as 900 former subpostmasters wrongfully convicted of crimes due to Post Office accounts showing discrepancies in the 2000s.
It followed the installation of accounting software, Horizon, which has since been proven in the High Court to have been unreliable, with ‘errors and bugs’ leading to unexplained variations in accounts.
For 13 years after his conviction for the theft of £22,000 from the Sub Post Office he ran in Kent, Peter believed he had been alone and the only person to go through ‘a complete nightmare’ – unable to prove his innocence against a system officials told him was ‘infallible’.
In 2015, like many others, he found out he wasn’t the only one, when the issues with the computer system were highlighted on the BBC television programme Panorama.
It ended with him being part of a group of more than 550 subpostmasters, led by the Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA), to secure a significant victory in the High Court last December.
In that case the judge ruled there was a ‘material risk’ that the Horizon software had caused discrepancies in accounts, leading to the Post Office offering a £57.8m damages settlement between the claimants.
After the huge legal costs associated with the case – which the Government refused to cover – Peter received a modest damages settlement, one he says can never compensate him for the stress and degradation of what he went through, the damage to his reputation, losing his job and income, and his liberty.
Today, he is still classed as a criminal, and the problem is that because it was a crime he ‘admitted’ in court back in 2002, the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), which is considering which cases to refer to the Court of Appeal to consider potential miscarriages of justice, has provisionally rejected his case.
Problems began soon after Horizon software was installed
Peter says he was advised by his Federation representative to ‘put things right’ to avoid court proceedings – something he did by borrowing £22,000 from his mother.
Despite this, court proceedings were still started against him, at which stage he says he was encouraged to ‘make up a story’ as to where the money had gone – made to believe he couldn’t possibly question the Horizon system.
It was all in vain. He was sentenced at Croydon Crown Court to six months in prison, for which he served three months in jail and three months at home on license.
“The only reason I ever said I had taken the money is because I was told that was my only option to avoid jail, as £22,000 was missing from the accounts and I was told I was the only one running a Post Office across the country that it had happened to,” he recalls.
“I was told I needed to repay the money and make up a story as to where the £22,000 had gone.
“I was in a complete panic and so I made up a story that I had invested in shares. It was stupid, but I was under such intense pressure and I was desperate to avoid prison. Even then I was sent to jail. The whole experience was just appalling.”
Like many, Peter says he began to experience problems with his accounts after the installation of the Horizon equipment at his Post Office in 2000.
Accounting problems started soon after Horizon system installed
A former bank manager who says he ‘knows his numbers’, Peter had experienced no previous problems having run the Post Office since 1990, and at various stages acted as relief manager at several other Post Office locations.
However, by July 2001, his Post Office was showing the unexplained shortfall of £22,000, leading to auditors arriving and taking his keys from him, telling him he would be interviewed and should seek representation.
He says it had all started with ‘small discrepancies’ which he would be told to ‘make good’ by his local area manager, either taking money from the retail side of his business, or simply signing off accounts to say the cash was ‘in the till’.
“At times the system would resolve itself and I’d get a notification of a ‘transaction error’ and all would be ok,” he explained.
“But as time went on the numbers didn’t work out and the shortages began to get bigger in value. This shortfall would continue to grow and I was tearing my hair out every balance day, staying in the office as late as 12 or 1am, looking for the shortages.
“I had not done anything illegal or wrong so did not think a solicitor was necessary. I contacted my local Federation representative and explained the situation to him, and I will always remember that his response was ‘how quickly can you put this right to keep the matter out of the courts?’
“I was made to believe the Horizon system was infallible and that it was all my fault, but as I had done no wrong I stupidly believed that if I replaced the money it would stop the Post Office from prosecuting me and that we’d work together over the coming weeks to find out what had gone wrong.
“I had to go to my mother and tell her I needed the money desperately, as it wasn’t an amount I could raise, and she wrote out a cheque from her life savings. I paid it to the Post Office but they still prosecuted me for theft. They weren’t bothered about investigating the system at all.
“I pleaded with the Post Office again and again that I had not taken the money, and I did not know where it was. They insisted that this was not happening to any other postmaster and that everybody else was balancing their books perfectly well
“I had relied on the representations of the Post Office through the Federation, that I would not be prosecuted if I paid the shortfall, and I understood that had come from The Post Office themselves.
“If I knew how this would eventually unfold I would not have paid the money as I do not accept the errors were caused by me, and I would never had made up the story about the shares and pleaded guilty.”
Solicitors appealing decision and supporting others in same situation
Solicitor Neil Hudgell, of Hudgell Solicitors, and Tim Moloney QC of Doughty Street Chambers, are working free of charge to help many former subpostmasters get their cases referred to the Court of Appeal.
In total they are support 34 subpostmasters at present, 28 whose cases have been referred to the Court of Appeal and six who are challenging provisional rejections from the CCRC and who have been given extra time to submit more evidence before a final decision.
They are now urging the CCRC to take into account the ‘many stories of significant duress placed on subpostmasters’ when considering cases, and a common theme where people were made to believe they couldn’t possibly point the finger of blame at technology.
“We are going to find a number of cases whereby people have ‘confessed’ to crimes they simply did not commit and were actively discouraged from mentioning issues with the technology”,” said Mr Hudgell.
“The CCRC appears to be rejecting cases in which it says people gave a ‘positive account of their own actions in stealing money’, but these confessions cannot be used as the overriding evidence now in light of the many subpostmasters who have shared their experiences of feeling bullied and backed into a corner.
“A number have told us they felt they had no choice but to plead guilty to crimes they would never have committed, and hadn’t committed, all of which distanced any focus from Horizon.
“We are working hard to provide the CCRC with all the information they need to be able to assess all the evidence as a whole in each case. We need to ensure it can consider the evidence, and importantly how those admissions came about.”
‘I want an apology for all I have been put through’
For Peter, it is not only about clearing his name, but also getting an apology.
“I want to clear my name and have a direct apology from the Post Office for ruining my life,” he says.
“It was something that brought great shame to my family, so much so that I did all I could to keep it from my relatives. At the time of my court appearance I arranged for my mother to visit family in India for a couple of months, so she was never aware that I was sent to prison. I think that would have killed her. She died last year and thankfully she never knew.
“Only my wife and four children know I spent time in prison, and I will only be prepared to tell others in my family when I have no conviction by my name.
“My reputation in the community was destroyed. They saw the Post Office suddenly close one day and I never returned, so my customers assumed I was a thief. My business virtually collapsed.
“At the time I was a treasurer also for a local charity, and that was a position I lost. My life fell apart, causing many issues in my marriage and undue pressure and stress on my children and my wife.
“I wrote a letter addressed to Paula Vennels, who was chief executive of the Post Office at the time of all this, and she didn’t even bother to reply. I think that says it all.
“I received a reply from another official telling me there was nothing wrong with the Horizon system and that I should seek legal advice. I didn’t have the money to fund lawyers though and it was only through being part of the High Court case that I was able to take any action to defend myself.
“Now I am having to fight all over again for justice and to clear my name, but that’s something I am determined to do.”