An exonerated Somerset postmistress says she is able to walk Main Street again with her head held high after her conviction was overturned last week.
Gail Ward of Wells was one of 39 postal workers whose names were cleared by the appeals court on Friday, April 24, after being convicted of theft, fraud and false accounting over the faulty Horizon accounting system at the post.
The convictions have since been called the most widespread miscarriage of justice in the UK.
Ms Ward owned the old post office on Priory Road and watched the Court of Appeal proceedings on a live link from her home.
She described her feelings of “shock” and “elation” when the final judgment was passed.
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She said: “It was only since the conviction was overturned that I felt I could walk down the main street with my head totally held high and if anyone was looking at me now they were looking for a different reason. . They could try to say, we shouldn’t have doubted her, she was innocent.
“It’s amazing that he finally got to what we were aiming for. You start to wonder, will this ever happen?
“I had known for 14 years that I had been convicted for something I had not done.”
After a 2007 audit of Ms Ward’s post office, a shortfall of just over £ 12,000 was discovered.
She said she was told that if the money was returned discreetly, there would be no further action.
Yet after friends loaned her the funds to balance the books, she received a court summons with charges of false accounting and theft.
Ms Ward appeared twice in trial court and once in Crown court, the morning she left her 13-year-old son to cry at home, unsure if she would be there when she returned from school .
During the court proceedings, she said she was told that if she found him guilty of false accounting, the theft charge would be dropped and jail time was less likely.
She said, “You do, you plead. I pleaded guilty to false accounting. The thought of prison – I was so scared.
Ms Ward was sentenced to 150 hours of community service at Cranmore Station, where she cleaned the trains.
Since the conviction, she has avoided entering a post office unless absolutely necessary, in which case she goes to an office outside of Wells.
After she lost the Priory Road Post Office, which closed permanently in 2008, Ms Ward and her husband lived off her income from her postman work, while they had to continue paying rent for the post office building.
She said: “We were lucky to have this job, but even that wasn’t enough to keep us afloat, because every penny he had was trying to support the business, so we lost everything. .
The couple were forced to file for bankruptcy in April 2008 and are only now “on an equal footing”, but they still rent out the Wells property in which they live.
Since losing their post office, Ms Ward was grateful to find work at various Wells stores and now works at the Pound Superstore on Market Street.
“I went from a good pay at the post office to a job in a minimum wage store,” she said.
“You try to put it in the back of your mind. Otherwise it would totally destroy you, but you feel a bit of an outcast.
“I found it very difficult to go out and face people. It changes the way you look at people and the way they look at you. “
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After the convictions, a number of former postmasters said they were rejected by their communities.
Ms Ward described a few who said ‘there is no smoke without fire’ and did not believe she was innocent at the time, but also noted that the vast majority had it sustained throughout the event.
After receiving £ 500 legal fees, which she was unable to pay, they one morning discovered an envelope containing £ 500 pushed through their door.
She said, “He said, it’s to cover your legal costs, it’s not a loan, it’s a donation.” It was anonymous, so we never knew who was doing it.
After Ms Ward’s conviction was published in a local newspaper, another wrongly convicted postmistress contacted her and she was eventually put in touch with the Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance, the campaign to expose the problems with the system. Horizon computing.
She said it was only then that she discovered how dramatically this software has had a impact on people’s lives.
She said, “When we went to the first meeting, there were only six of us in that small room, in a very small circle.
“As the meetings went on, the circles got bigger and bigger, until we had to rent a bigger room and we ended up with over 500 of us.”
Ms Ward said that each person’s story was “virtually the same, with slight variations.”
“We were all saying it’s not us, it’s the computer system,” she said.
“Nobody goes into a small business, puts everything they own, only to defraud themselves and get out of the business. No one would do that.
“We have been exonerated now, but that still doesn’t take away the fact that I was sentenced, it still doesn’t take away that I had to do community service.”
As to the future of the JFSA campaign, Ms. Ward said that the decision on any further action rests with their lawyers, but noted that those affected “deserve to be rewarded” for what happened to them.
Other concerned people have called for a public inquiry into the failures of the Post Office’s Horizon computer system.
The Criminal Cases Review Commission, which investigates potential miscarriages of justice, is reviewing 22 other cases.
There have been over 700 Horizon’s evidence-based prosecutions. The commission and the post office are asking anyone else who feels their conviction is unsure to come forward.
In a statement after the decision, the chairman of the post office, Tim Parker, said: “The post office is extremely sorry for the impact on the lives of these postmasters and their families which has been caused by historical failures.
“The Post Office stopped the prosecution shortly after its split from Royal Mail ten years ago and has throughout this appeal process supported overturning the vast majority of convictions.
“We are reaching out to other postmasters and post office workers with criminal convictions following lawsuits at private post offices who may be affected, to help them appeal if they wish.
“The Post continues to reform its operations and culture so that such events do not happen again.”
Post General Manager Nick Read said: “I have no doubts about the human cost of the Post’s past failures and the deep pain that has been caused to those affected.
“Many of these postmasters involved have been fighting for justice for a considerable time and unfortunately there are some who are not here to see the results today and whose families have made appeals in their memory. I am very moved by their courage.
“The overturning of historical beliefs is a vital step in fully and properly addressing the past as I strive to right these wrongs as quickly as possible, and there must be compensation that reflects what has happened.
“Additionally, since arriving at the post office 18 months ago, I have focused on resetting the culture at the post office and establishing a substantive partnership with our postmasters.
“We are determined to make them come first in everything we do because without them there is no post office.
“We need to transform the post office so that it can continue to provide essential services in local communities across the UK.”
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This notice was published: 2021-04-26 10:44:21