A change in the way computer evidence is treated in court is needed in the wake of the Post Office scandal, according to a leading professional body. The BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, has called for reform following the Horizon scandal in which more than 700 sub-postmasters were prosecuted based on evidence from a discredited accounting system.
The Horizon system, designed by the Japanese company Fujitsu, was seen as a revolution at the time, but proved to be fatally flawed and caused unexplained accounting shortfalls. In April, the Court of Appeal ruled that the convictions of 39 subpostmasters were unsafe because they had been based on evidence from the Horizon computer system, which was used to prosecute a total of 736 people over a period of almost 15 years.
The Post Office was able prosecute the subpostmasters using Horizon evidence, without proving criminal intent, because of a 1999 rule – which replaced a section of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) 1984 – that computer systems should be presumed in court to have operated correctly. The assumption that computer evidence is reliable must be revisited to avoid future miscarriages of justice, say the BCS. There have also been calls from union bosses for Paula Vennells, the former Post Office Chief Executive, to be prosecuted and stripped of her CBE, which was awarded in 2019.
Paul Fletcher, BCS’s Chief Executive, said: ‘This case uncovered a range of issues that are key to the reputation of our industry, including the relationship between technology and organisational culture as well as the vital importance of meeting independent standards of professionalism, trust and ethics. With so many lives so severely affected we are adding our members’ voice to support for a public judge led enquiry.’
‘Organisations relying on data from computer systems to support prosecutions should be required to prove the integrity of that data. This level of transparency is essential to retaining public trust in IT which is a huge force for good in all our professional and personal lives, as the pandemic has proved.’