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Katy Crane recalled her family’s traumatic treatment at the hands of the Post Office during Nick Wallis’s talk at the Pig about the scandal in Hastings last May (photo: Cliff van Coevorden).

Post Office scandal: conviction of local ex-subpostmaster quashed

It’s less than a year since Nick Wallis came to Hastings to talk about the great Post Office scandal, and barely a month since ITV’s drama about it caught the nation’s attention — or conscience. Now, in the first appeal to be decided since that pivotal moment, the subpostmaster mother of the young woman interviewed by Nick during his talk has had her conviction overturned. Nick Terdre reports.

The ITV drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office put the wrongful conviction of hundreds of subpostmasters due to the faulty Horizon IT system in the headlines, after years in which the press especially had shown little appetite for giving due coverage to what has been called the ‘greatest miscarriage of justice’ in UK legal history.

Meanwhile the battle to secure justice for the 983 subpostmasters across the UK convicted of stealing from their Post Office accounts due to Fujitsu’s malfunctioning Horizon software goes on, partly at the independent inquiry conducted by retired High Court judge Sir Wyn Williams and partly in the courts where convictions are being appealed.

One particularly welcome victory was recently won at the Court of Appeal with the exoneration of Kathleen Crane, subpostmaster at the Old Town post office in Eastbourne, who had been convicted of fraud in 2010. Kathleen’s daughter Katy was interviewed at the meeting which Nick Wallis, the investigative journalist who helped to bring the scandal to public attention, addressed in Hastings last May.

Putting a human face on the story

Nick was persuaded to come to Hastings to give a talk at the Pig by local resident Rosie Brocklehurst. Through a mutual acquaintance Rosie also met Katy, whose family had been put through the Post Office mill, and realised that if she told her story at the meeting, it would put a human face on the suffering and humiliation to which so many innocent people had been subjected by arrogant Post Office investigators because of bugs in Horizon.

Katy ahead of attending Nick’s talk at The Pig in Hastings.

Katy was willing, so with Nick prompting, she recounted the day she came home from school to find Post Office auditors in her home claiming that £18,721 was missing from her mother’s subpostmaster account, and one of the investigators rifling through the drawers in her bedroom.

With two young daughters and a diabetic husband to care for – he died in 2016 – Kathleen decided that pleading guilty would give her the best chance of avoiding jail. Which it did.

But Katy’s parents’ reputation in the community was ruined and their jobs lost. When they were pressed to repay the supposedly missing sum, Katy had to contribute the inheritance from her grandmother to help make it up. Traumatised by the experience, Kathleen withdrew into her shell.

A seed sown

But a seed was sown in Hastings, when Nick gave Katy the name of barrister Flora Page, who was taking on subpostmasters’ appeals against conviction on a pro bono basis. It was she who represented Kathleen when the case came before Lord Justice Holroyde, Justice Picken and Mrs Justice Farbey in the Court of Appeal.

Katy persuaded her mother to attend the hearing on 25 January when the decision was due to be given. Knowing the people involved, and having helped bring about their appeal, Nick also attended. They were all naturally overjoyed to hear Holroyde allow the appeal, declaring the case to be an abuse of process. It was the first appeal to be decided in the wake of the ITV drama.

“Our life has changed since that magical, hopeful night in Hastings,” Katy told Rosie.

“I’m obviously delighted for the whole Crane family,” Nick told HOT. “It was a real privilege to meet Katy at The Pig in Hastings last year and a testament to Rosie Brocklehurst’s tenacity and determination that much of this happened when I gave Katy Flora Page’s number.

“I obviously didn’t know what would come of it, but I am thrilled Katy persuaded her mum to speak to Flora and that Kathleen was able to have her conviction overturned relatively swiftly.”

Denied a fair trial

For historical reasons the Post Office has its own powers of prosecution, but in the appeal judges’ view, Kathleen was denied a fair trial and the case should never have been brought. In Nick’s words, it was “predicated on a complete failure to investigate the source of her discrepancies and also to disclose known faults about the Horizon software”.

So does the explosion of media interest since the ITV drama represent a watershed moment? The government too, after pursuing the issue half-heartedly in the decade since it came to public attention, was suddenly impelled to take action, with prime minister Rishi Sunak promising legislation to give collective exoneration to all subpostmasters convicted of theft or false accounting because of the faulty Horizon software.

Kathleen was the 97th victim to be exonerated, meaning there still remain almost 900 waiting to have their reputation restored.  Only those whose criminal record has been wiped are able to apply for compensation, so exoneration for all at a stroke sounds an attractive proposition.

But the judiciary is not keen — such a move would meddle with the separation of powers between their branch of the state and the executive which is a pillar of our democracy. It might also create a precedent that would be welcomed by a government that has shown its willingness to play hard and  fast with the law. It could also lead to the incorrect acquittal of one or two subpostmasters who are actually guilty.

Meanwhile, though somewhat overshadowed by the Covid inquiry, the Horizon inquiry is now moving into its final stages — the final hearings of witnesses resume in April and are expected to end in September. Among those still to provide testimony is the former Post Office boss the Rev Paula Vennells, who continued to maintain there was nothing wrong with Horizon long after its problems were known.

When the inquiry is finally over, there may even be some action by the police to pursue criminal behaviour on the part of Post Office and Fujitsu personnel. Despite strong prima facie indications of wrongdoing among their ranks, no action has been yet taken against them. However the police have confirmed that some Post Office employees are being investigated for fraud.

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Posted 20:24 Thursday, Feb 8, 2024 In: Campaigns

2 Comments

Please read our comment guidelines before posting on HOT

  1. Emily Johns

    I always wondered whether the Marina postmistress of the early 2000s was one of the victims of Horizon IT.

    Comment by Emily Johns — Monday, Feb 12, 2024 @ 17:24

  2. Bea

    Could we please stop using the word “repay” for money demanded by Post Office Ltd (POL)? You can’t repay something that you never took.

    The media are gradually migrating to phrases like “post office managers” because the idea of sub-postmaster or sub-postmistress is an anachronism.

    Comment by Bea — Monday, Feb 12, 2024 @ 11:24

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