Tomorrow BBC viewers in the South of England will be reminded of the disgraceful behaviour of Post Office Ltd (POL) in seeking to prosecute the former subpostmistress of West Byfleet Post Office for theft. Seema will tell the viewers in no uncertain terms, I am sure, of the enduring misery and suffering her conviction and incarceration for theft causes her and her family to this day and into the future.
Seema’s conviction remains with the Criminal Case Review Commission (CCRC) until such time as they decide to return the conviction to the appeal court for consideration. It has sat with the CCRC since April 2015 and it will be close to 5 years when the decision is finally made to return the conviction as unsafe. There are of course some reasons for the delay such as the intervening Group Litigation which was only concluded in December and of course staff shortages in these recessionary times.
However there is no doubt in my mind, and the minds of many more able people than I, that the conviction will be overturned and while I have written many times in this blog about why I know this to be so I think perhaps I should summarise the details once more. The evidence that Seema is not guilty of theft is provided for the most part by Post Office Ltd themselves in the transcript of the proceedings in court when Seema stood trial in Guildford Crown Court on a charge of theft starting on Monday 11th October 2010.
Seema could not explain how the computer system had managed to derive a £87,000 loss at her branch when POL auditors finally visited her office in January 2008. Far more importantly POL could not explain the losses either and in keeping with their mindset that Horizon could not be to blame they charged Seema with theft and prosecuted her. It is important to note that the police were not involved and the POL brought the prosecution themselves under what they believed to be the powers invested in them by legislation. (a dubious point that we will leave for now)
Seema was represented by a Mr Hadrill and her costs were to be covered by legal aid. POL were represented by a Mr Tatford who would be paid for by POL. In the run up to the trial and purely by chance Seema had come across a reference to a bug in Horizon that had been referred to in a civil trial featuring Lee Castleton who had also been victim of unexplainable losses at his post office. The bug has become known as the Calendar Square bug which was the name of the Post Office where it was first noticed. This was the first time Seema had even considered the possibility of a bug in the system causing the losses she had encountered and it is an extremely important point in its own right. Why would a subpostmistress consider the possibility of a bug being the problem if POL consistently tells her that there are no bugs in the system and if there was one it would be extraordinary if it only affected her branch. As POL managers still to this day say “no one else in the network is experiencing these problems so it must be your fault”.
As a result of adding to her defence the possibility of computer error causing the losses, expert witnesses were appointed. The defence chose Professor Charles MacLachlan and POL chose a Fujitsu employee named Gareth Jenkins. As expert witnesses do, Charles and Gareth worked together in order to prepare their reports to the court. In fact such was the scrutiny of Prof MacLachlan, he and Jenkins were still working on looking at possible problems in Horizon up to and including the first day of the trial. And that is another extremely important point that I will come back to in a minute.
Just to add some background into my research into this subject. In November 2015 the barrister Stephen Mason obtained permission from the trial judge to publish the transcript of the trial. https://journals.sas.ac.uk/deeslr/article/view/2217
I happened to have enough time and interest to read the whole thing through, not once but several times and I also took the opportunity to concatenate all the daily transcripts into one single word document some 1500 pages long. I have worked through it in detail and annotated my findings and obvious discrepancies in the evidence, ultimately providing it to the CCRC as evidence that Seema was truly the victim of a miscarriage of justice. That was over 4 years ago and since then even more evidence has come to light, mainly through the disclosure evidence produced at the GLO trials as well as Justice Fraser’s findings of fact in those trials.
It would take an extremely long blog post to delve into all the inadequacies of the prosecution’s case against Seema over the length of the trial but luckily all I have to do to convince all and sundry of Seema’s innocence, the likely criminal behaviour of POL’s expert witness and the dreadful behaviour of Mr Tatford representing POL is to look in detail at the very first day of the trial. In fact only the first part of the first day before the jury was even sworn in.
Before the jury was introduced to the court Mr Hadrill and Mr Tatford discussed some issues with the Judge. The first was the subject of disclosure. I have no details of what further disclosure Prof MacLachlan required but I assume from later testimony it was more details of the now infamous Known Errors Log. This had been requested by the defence in May but was turned down by a judge in a separate hearing because it would take an additional 45 hours of expert witness work and they don’t come cheap. Why people still have to go to prison because the judicial system cannot justify the expense to find out the true facts is a subject for another day. What is crucial though is that this was not the Crown prosecuting Seema it was POL themselves and surely they would have wanted to get to the bottom of it? No, and it wasn’t just Seema who POL tried to prevent having access to crucial evidence but even at the GLO trial POL were claiming that the Known Errors Log was irrelevant and they still prevent access to this day to the log for subpostmasters who ask.
Mr Tatford: Regrettably the Crown’s view is that the defence have never in this case provided focused disclosure requests. They have asked for everything. Initially this was everything in relation to the West Byfleet post office, two and a half years of transactions. It was explained repeatedly that providing that material was enormously expensive and offers were made to the defence to suggest a period of data they would like to look at because of course they have the advantage of the defendant’s instructions, because the defendant is saying there was a computer problem – easy to say it, but a computer problem should be visible, at least the symptoms of it to the user of the computer, and this defendant was using the Horizon computer system at her post office every single day, probably perhaps hundreds of times a day.
What an extraordinary statement – fundamentally flawed in so many ways – and no better example than when in the Horizon trial it was exposed that not only were errors in the branch accounts caused by Horizon bugs but not even Fujitsu were aware of them until many years later when they were eventually discovered. Only a few minutes in to the trial and if Sir Peter Fraser had been in the chair it would have been stopped then.
Mr Tatford: It is for the Crown to prove the case, to prove that the defendant stole the money. If the jury think the deficiency might be down to a computer error, Calendar Square or something else, then that would probably help them to move a great way towards acquitting the defendant
Thanks to Mr Tatford here for illuminating the obvious and not so obvious. First of all he refers to ‘the money’ showing his lack of knowledge of as to the effects of a computer bug that generates a shortfall in the accounts of a branch. Horizon does not have hands and legs to steal physical cash from the safe. A computer error in this case merely performs an erroneous transaction that has the effect of recording the wrong amount in the accounts. No ‘money’ physically changes hands.
More importantly though, he provides us with glowing testimony that even he would be obliged to consider the innocence of the defendant should the defence be able to prove that computer errors could be to blame. Mr Tatford surely would be the first now to support the notion that Seema was wrongly convicted after he has read Justice Fraser’s conclusions in the Horizon Trial.
Mr Hadrill: It transpires that what Professor McLachlan has seen this lunchtime on the computer, the laptop of Mr Jenkins is a third formatted programme. It is called an NT event log. Its existence was never known before today. It clearly had not been declared before today,
Prior to this statement by Mr Hadrill he had been explaining to the court the lack of disclosure by POL and Fujitsu. POL had argued about the cost of providing any additional disclosure but here was Mr Jenkins providing brand new evidence on the very first day of the trial. It is extremely significant for many reasons. First the contents of the log eventually persuaded Prof MacLachlan later in the trial to concede that it was most likely that the Calendar Square bug had not affected Seema’s accounts and I will come back to that later. Far more importantly was the fact that this was Gareth Jenkins providing evidence to the court that had not been requested again I will tie that into a later conclusion about Mr Jenkin’s behaviour in court.
It is also worth weighing up the fact that Jenkins provided this additional disclosure against what Mr Telford had to say about why POL didn’t provide disclosure above.
Back to the court discussing the possibility of the Calendar Square error affecting West Byfleet:
Mr Telford: paragraph 6 details the problem was dealt with in March 2006. So the problem is completely irrelevant from March 2006 onwards.
On 11th October 2010, in sworn testimony before Guildford Crown Court both POL and Fujitsu claimed that the Receipts and Payments mismatch bug that had occurred in Calendar Square Post Office had been ‘fixed’ in March 2006.
Justice Fraser in his findings of fact in the latest Horizon Trial stated it was still apparent in 2010:
- Callendar Square/Falkirk bug. This is a bug present in Legacy Horizon. It is agreed that this bug occurred between the years of 2000 and 2006, although there is an issue about when it stopped. In my judgment, the period when the effects of this occurred are 2000 to 2010
In my personal opinion this type of error was still occurring even in Horizon Online up until 2016 and the possibility that something similar still exists is most likely.
Again Mr Tatford is extremely generous in providing Seema with all the evidence she requires to submit to the appeal court:
Mr Tatford: One wonders why if that was the cause of the problem, why everything was not made better quite frankly when the problem was solved in March 2006, but it would appear the hole in the accounts appeared to grow, not become smaller.
It is for the Crown to prove that she stole the money and if the jury think that part of the deficiency may be down to this then that may persuade them that the rest of the deficiency may also have had an innocent reason and that would lead them to acquitting the defendant, but that line of reasoning, the evidential basis for it, can be put before the jury.
The judge now sums up his findings of these discussions and in doing so says this:
A vast quantity of material has been disclosed and considered and the defence have ample material I am quite satisfied to test the integrity of the Horizon system.
Sadly he was mistaken and I am also sure he would freely admit to have been duped by POL and Fujitsu into believing what he said to be factual.
And there we have it ladies and gentleman. We have only now arrived at the point in the trial where the jury is about to be sworn in and the actual trial is set to begin but we already have enough evidence from the discussion between the Judge and the counsel for the defence and prosecution to cast more than great doubt on the safety of Seema’s ultimate conviction, we have ,as will be seen, more than sufficient evidence to prosecute individuals from POL and Fujitsu for attempting to pervert the course of justice.
So what about Mr Gareth Jenkins. He has been working as an expert witness on this case for many months before the trial started. He clearly knew it was going to start on Monday 11th October 2010 and as an expert witness he would have been briefed by the prosecution as to his responsibilities and duties according to CPS guidelines for expert witnesses. He made a conscious decision to provide the court with additional evidence on the day the trial began that had not previously been requested by the defence expert witness. It was crucial evidence that led to a major part of the defence’s case being destroyed in court.
It must surely therefore be an inescapable conclusion that Mr Gareth Jenkins deliberately withheld knowledge of a Horizon Error from the court that would have, by POL’s own written admission, upheld Seema’s defence of a Horizon error being responsible for the losses incurred at her branch. I refer of course to the infamous Memo of a meeting held between POL and Fujitsu with regard to a Receipt Payments Mismatch of exactly the same generic problem that has existed in Horizon since its exception and it is of my opinion still has the potential to exist in the system today. Gareth Jenkins was present at the meeting and the minutes specifically state that there could be an impact on ongoing legal cases where branches are disputing the integrity of Horizon. The minutes also reveal two action points that Gareth Jenkins must action by 8th October just TWO DAYS before the Misra trial is due to start. Just to make matters worse Fujitsu, under the command of Gareth Jenkins would be rolling out the fix to the first branch on the 11th October while Seema’s trial was in progress.
Had Gareth Jenkins elected to inform the court of this error and the effect it had on branch accounts there can be no doubt it would have had a significant effect on the outcome of the trial as Mr Tatford repeatedly and so helpfully commented on. Mr Jenkins will soon be regretting that decision and he will have ample time do so.
The detail of this trial was relatively secret. Post Office Ltd and Gareth Jenkins must have been safe in the knowledge that nobody would concern them enough to have the transcript published nor could they ever have imagined that the minutes of that meeting would have been made public. The prospect of a ‘Horizon’ trial was not even a remote possibility in 2010. The behaviour of these people is reprehensible, the failure of POL management not to pursue criminal charges against them is bordering on criminal activity itself and the absolute travesty of justice that has delayed Seema’s conviction being overturned earlier than this is intolerable.
Thanks as ever to Nick Wallis at http://www.postofficetrial.com for the reporting of the trial among many other helpful things including obtaining the transcript and the copy of the infamous memo. To Stephen Mason as well who had the remarkable foresight to obtain the transcript of Seema’s trial without which her conviction might have gone unchallenged and Mr Jenkins and POL escape without censure.