Liversedge woman has Post Office conviction quashed after enduring '11 years of hell'
A former subpostmaster has spoken of living through a "nightmare" after finally having her name cleared by the Court of Appeal following one of the UK's biggest miscarriages of justice.
Calls are being made for Post Office officials to face a public inquiry after dozens of former subpostmasters were convicted and even jailed for theft, fraud and false accounting. Their convictions were quashed at the High Court last week.
Among those exonerated was Alison Hall, 52, of Liversedge, who was sentenced to 120 hours of community service after admitting false accounting in 2011.
She said it was a “massive weight off her shoulders" after 11 years of "being accused of something you haven’t done”.
She said it was the turn of Post Office officials involved with the miscarriage of justice to “face the courts and face the judges like we did”.
The court previously heard that the subpostmasters’ lives were “irreparably ruined” as they lost their jobs, homes and marriages after they were prosecuted by the Post Office, which knew the Horizon IT system had faults from near the beginning.
Judges said the Post Office “knew there were serious issues about the reliability of Horizon” and had a “clear duty to investigate” the system’s defects.
But the Post Office “consistently asserted that Horizon was robust and reliable”, and “effectively steamrolled over any subpostmaster who sought to challenge its accuracy”.
Miss Hall took on running Hightown Post Office in Liversedge after buying the attached house next door with her partner of 36 years, Richard Walker.
Despite never using a computer before, the former school cook and teacher’s aide had training and experienced staff who were a “great help”.
From the outset in 2005, the business did well – so well that within six years they had added an off-licence, convenience store and finally sales for National Lottery tickets.
But problems emerged with the scratchcards, which had to be run through the Post Office system.
Miss Hall said: “I used to dread putting on the computer in the morning. I started getting all these ‘transaction corrections’ – and they were all in multiples. When you got a transaction correction you had to accept it or you wouldn’t be able to run the Post Office.”
Miss Hall, now 52, hoped the issues would sort themselves out and did not tell her partner.
She tried calling helplines and put in her own money to balance the books. But the sums quickly spiralled, needing thousands of pounds.
Desperate and trying to figure out what had gone wrong, she inflated the figures to say the money was there.
On September 3, 2010, an IT engineer came to upgrade the system and she realised she could not hide the missing sums any more.
Despite her explanations, there was no sympathy and a phone call later she was told to shut up shop straight away. She was then suspended but told she could appeal.
For months, Miss Hall, Mr Walker, son Craig and daughter Kirsty trawled through paperwork.
Miss Hall said: “We couldn’t get our heads round what had happened. It was horrible.”
After the second appeal failed, she was sacked.
She said: “It has been a nightmare, especially when I had to go to court, because none of my family have ever been in court. I was a nervous wreck – I still feel I’m a nervous wreck.”
The case ended up at Leeds Crown Court. Miss Hall said: “I didn’t know if I was going on trial or to jail on the day.
"Our barrister came in and said to me, ‘If you admit to false accounting, the theft charges will be dropped and there will be no trial.’ I was too nervous, I couldn’t cope.
“I got 120 hours of community service and had to pay all the money back. We struggled. It was just awful.”
Too ashamed to tell people what had happened – including her own mother – Miss Hall told anyone who asked that she had fallen out with the Post Office.
She said: “It is only in the last year I’ve been able to talk about it. It brings back such horrible memories, getting accused of something you haven’t done.”
Some compensation has been paid out but not enough, believes Miss Hall, for what she has been through. She has since built up a successful new shop, employing eight staff.
Mr Walker said he never suspected his wife, who he added is “morally incapable” of such a crime.
He said: “There was no attempt to listen to anything. We were cut off from gathering evidence.
“They barred Alison from going behind the counter right from the moment they found the discrepancy. They say they had all this evidence and we had nothing to fight it with.
“My head became absolutely mashed and I had a bit of a breakdown.
"This will be a massive relief. It will be a giant monkey off my back.”
They were both at the High Court last week to hear her conviction quashed, along with dozens of other victims.
Miss Hall and Mr Walker said bosses needed to answer for their actions after 11 years of hell and Miss Hall would dearly like a face-to-face apology from a senior official but is not confident that will happen.
One issue that hurts her most is how she was seen as guilty from the start, adding: “I tried to explain everything to the Post Office investigators.
“They weren’t interested – none of them. It was a nightmare.”
The Post Office has apologised and called for compensation to “reflect what has happened”.
Officials will contact other postmasters and Post Office workers with criminal convictions from past private Post Office prosecutions who may be affected to help them if they want to appeal.
Chief executive Nick Read said: “The quashing of historical convictions is a vital milestone in fully and properly addressing the past as I work to put right these wrongs as swiftly as possible, and there must be compensation that reflects what has happened.”
An independent review led by Sir Wyn Williams is underway.