4th June 2021
One of the successful appeal barristers in the Post Office miscarriage of justice scandal has given a powerful and important speech, which you should click on and read here.
Almost every paragraph contains devastating stuff – mistake and abuse, after mistake and abuse.
So immense a miscarriage of justice was the whole affair that it is difficult to get one’s mind around the scale of what went wrong.
I think there were three particular scandals that comprise the wider scandal – though this is not an exhaustive list.
One scandal is the extent of what went wrong and how long it took for anything to be put right – the number of people involved and affected, and the length of time it has taken for there to be any justice.
Here it should also be noted that had it not been for exemplary judging in the civil case by Mr Justice Fraser, there may still not be anything approximating any justice in this case.
A huge, horrible system failure of the English legal system.
A second scandal is just how many managers and lawyers in the Post Office knew that there were injustices – or did not care that there were injustices – but pressed on with the prosecutions and resisting the civil claims anyway.
Here the failure is not so much of a system but of individual professional decisions made by many who could and did know better.
The aggregate effect of all these bad decisions was immense – but each decision could and should have been different.
It is not good enough for those who made those bad decisions to hide behind any system failures – each should be held accountable for their individual decisions.
A third scandal is the most basic of all – and is more fundamental than the failure of the legal system and the failures of managers and lawyers.
This scandal is about human credulity.
This scandal is about how mere shortfalls on a computer system were capable of being sufficient evidence in-and-of-itself for postmasters and postmistresses to be criminalised.
Computer says: guilty.
Here the scandal is not about systems or decisions – but about the nature of evidence and proof itself.
A problem of general gullibility.
As the appeal barrister Paul Marshall says in his speech:
‘One of the features of these miscarriages of justice is that, in almost all cases, the only evidence against the defendant in question was a shortfall shown in the Horizon computer system. If you remember only one thing from this talk, bear in mind that writing on a bit of paper in evidence is only marks on a piece of paper until first, someone explains what it means and, second, if it is a statement of fact, someone proves the truth of that fact.
‘The simplest explanation for the Post Office scandal is that documents generated by the Horizon computer system were routinely treated by lawyers and judges as though statements of fact that were true, without bothering to consider how their truth should be established. It was taken as given that what a computer record showed was correct. The shallowness of this approach is reprehensible.’
Even if the legal system had worked better, and even if Post Office managers and lawyers had made better decisions, there was always going to be a problem if such uncritical deference was given to computer records.
A computer should never be the one to, in effect, pronounce guilt.
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