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Horizon convictions cleared ‘speedily’ through court fast track, top judge says

Ex-Post Office workers’ convictions linked to the Horizon scandal are being quashed “speedily” by the Court of Appeal under a “fast-track approach”, the most senior judge in England and Wales has said.

The Lady Chief Justice Baroness Carr said the court was “committed to the efficient and swift despatch of Horizon appeals”, with unopposed cases being dealt with on an “expedited basis” and heard within a matter of weeks.

Her comments came at the end of a hearing in London on Tuesday, where Jacqueline Falcon, 42, became the latest victim of the Horizon scandal to be cleared by the court.

It comes after Baroness Carr said she was prepared to “speak out” to defend the rule of law, amid plans for blanket legislation to exonerate many affected former subpostmasters.

New Lord Chief Justice
The Lady Chief Justice Baroness Carr is the first woman to hold the role of the most senior judge in England and Wales (Jordan Pettitt/PA)

The plans have raised constitutional questions about the separation between Parliament and the courts, alongside issues such as the potential for correctly convicted people being cleared.

Baroness Carr told reporters earlier this month that she did not know the specifics of ministers’ proposals, adding: “It is for the courts to make judicial decisions. These are court-ordered convictions.”

“If there comes a point in time where the rule of law has to be confronted in this context, then I will confront it,” she said.

The top judge has previously told MPs that it was “not factually correct” to suggest that courts were unable to cope with the cases, with it not being for judges to comment on “the wisdom of proposed legislation”.

More than 700 Post Office branch managers around the UK were prosecuted between 1999 and 2015 after the faulty Horizon accounting software made it look as though money was missing from their shops.

Ms Falcon was accused of reversing transactions on Horizon between December 2014 and February 2015 while working at Hadston Post Office in Northumberland.

The ex-Post Office clerk was attempting to cover up a £933.69 shortfall in the branch’s accounts, which she had not taken and could not explain but feared would be deducted from her wages in run-up to Christmas, the court heard.

She was handed a three-month prison sentence, suspended for 12 months, and ordered to pay £933.69 in compensation after pleading guilty to fraud at Newcastle Crown Court in 2015.

She watched via videolink as senior judges ruled her conviction was unsafe because Post Office failures meant her trial was unfair.

The court heard that Ms Falcon had worked in the Post Office system since the age of 18.

Her barrister, Lynton Orrett, said she had given “a lifelong service with no mark against her name throughout that period”.

Ms Falcon, who had received no formal training in the Horizon system, had “no idea” where the accounting discrepancy had come from, Mr Orrett said.

Jacqueline Falcon and her daughter
Jacqueline Falcon’s fraud conviction has been overturned by the Court of Appeal in the light of the Horizon system debacle (Tom Wilkinson/PA)

Her employer made her pay for any such discrepancies herself, so Ms Falcon used money from elsewhere to cover the shortfall after waiting to see if it would self-correct on the system, as had happened on previous occasions.

“At no time did Ms Falcon gain a penny for herself,” Mr Orrett said.

Paul Jarvis, representing the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), which had brought the fraud case against Ms Falcon after she was reported to the police, said it did not oppose her appeal.

He said that after prosecutors approached the Post Office to see if there was evidence to support Ms Falcon’s position that she could not explain what happened, they were told that “there were no issues with the Horizon system that could possibly explain a shortfall of that nature”.

“Had the CPS known then what they know now, then this is not a situation where a charge would have been brought,” Mr Jarvis said.

Lord Justice Holroyde, who considered the appeal alongside Baroness Carr and Mrs Justice Farbey, said the “reliability of the Horizon data was essential to the prosecution” but the Post Office had not disclosed concerns about the system to the CPS.

“As a result of (the Post Office’s) failures of investigation and disclosure, (Ms Falcon) could not have a fair trial,” the judge said.

He said Ms Falcon had described the “traumatic” experience of being prosecuted and “the embarrassment and distress she and her family suffered”, including “years of being shunned by their village community”.

Had she known what the Post Office knew about the Horizon system issues, she would have acted differently, the judge said.

Baroness Carr said Ms Falcon’s case was the 71st Horizon-related conviction quashed by the Court of Appeal, adding that her appeal was dealt with at a 30-minute hearing just over three weeks after the CPS indicated it would not oppose the challenge.

So far this year, six appeal applications had been received by the court, with four unopposed challenges already quashed, the judge said – two within 14 days of the notice of appeal being received and two within seven days.

The Post Office said 102 Horizon-related convictions have been overturned, including nine prosecuted by other bodies and appeals dealt with at a crown court and in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Paul Harris, senior partner at law firm Edward Fail, Bradshaw & Waterson, who represented Ms Falcon, said: “This has been a horrific ordeal for Jacqueline and her family which has lasted for years.

“She was a hard-working, honest person whose good name was destroyed by the Post Office deliberately concealing the bugs in the Horizon system.

“There remain many who still await justice.”