A former Post Office worker convicted of fraud nearly a decade ago has become the latest victim of the Horizon scandal to be cleared by the Court of Appeal under a fast-track approach.
Jacqueline Falcon, 42, was accused of reversing transactions on the faulty Horizon accounting software between December 2014 and February 2015 while working at Hadston Post Office in Northumberland.
The ex-Post Office clerk had been 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, 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.
At a hearing in London on Tuesday, senior judges ruled her conviction was unsafe because Post Office failures meant her trial was unfair.
Ms Falcon, from Hadston, watched via videolink as her conviction was overturned.
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”.
The former clerk, who had received no formal training in the Horizon system, had “no idea” where the near £1,000 accounting discrepancy had come from, Mr Orrett said.
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 were a charge would have been brought,” Mr Jarvis said.
Lord Justice Holroyde, who considered the appeal alongside the Lady Chief Justice 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.
“The court has been and remains committed to the efficient and swift dispatch of Horizon appeals,” the most senior judge in England and Wales said.
She added that recent cases coming before judges were being dealt with “under the fast-track approach”.
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.