A sub-postmaster from north Wales has opened up about how being wrongly convicted of false accounting while running his village’s Post Office branch put his life on hold.
Noel Thomas’s life turned upside then when a computer error led to large quantities of money disappearing from the accounts at the branch in Gaerwen, on Anglesey.
Dozens of former subpostmasters who were convicted of theft and fraud because of the Post Office’s defective accounting system have finally had their names cleared by the Court of Appeal last week.
Thirty-nine employees were able to walk free after judges at the Royal Courts of Justice quashed previous convictions of fraud on grounds that the subpostmasters did not have a fair trial.
After almost two decades of anguish, stigma, ruined relationships and bereavement, Noel’s name was finally cleared, along with the names of 39 other former sub-postmasters.
“They started naming the 39, and my name came up, and as soon as it came up I was really emotional,” said Noel.
“At that moment, I just ran out. I’d had enough, I knew I was cleared and I wanted to see my daughter and my son.”
The trauma began when, in 2005, the sub-postmaster noticed a peculiar phenomenon in his Post Office branch’s accounts. Large sums of money, sometimes upwards of £2,000, had inexplicably begun vanishing from the books.
“In early 2005, money kept disappearing,” said Noel, now 73, recollecting the events.
This wasn’t the first time this had happened to the sub-postmaster. He had noticed irregularities with the accounts, which were computerised by the Post Office, for the past two years, starting back in 2003.
However, he was in regular contact with Post Office management and had been reassured that they would “sort it out”.
But, one morning in October 2005, Noel’s life unexpectedly flipped upside down.
“They knocked on the door at half past seven in the morning, two auditors,” he recalled.
The Post Office, investigating around £48,000 in total missing from the accounts, paid a visit to Noel’s family home. To this day, Noel vividly remembers every detail.
“They went out, and they came back with two policemen who I knew,” he said.
Noel remembers the sense of incredulity from the police officers after they were instructed to “cuff him” and take him into custody.
The events of that morning would kickstart a gruelling, 16-year-long ordeal for Noel, the ramifications of which are still impacting him and his family to this day.
In 2006, Noel was prosecuted in Caernarfon Crown Court, pleading guilty to the lesser charge of false accounting to avoid a more serious charge of theft, with the hope it would avoid prison time. But this plan backfired, and Noel was sentenced to nine months in prison, where he would spend his sixtieth birthday.
However, unbenownst to Noel and his family at the time, he was just one of many individuals in a similar position.
Over the course of 15 years, beginning in 2000, more than 900 sub-postmasters across the UK were prosecuted after money appeared to vanish from accounts.
Many of them, like Noel, faced time in prison – their livelihoods and reputations in ruin.
Aside from their similar fates and standings in their respective communities, these people all had another factor in common – the computer programme used to keep track of money going in and out of their Post Office branches.
Back in 1999, the Post Office installed software called Horizon as a means of digitising transactions and accounts. Shortly after, across the UK, the number of Post Office branches seeing discrepancies in accounts increased, as did the number of prosecutions made by the Post Office against sub-postmasters like Noel.
Some of them began to grow suspicious that Horizon was somehow faulty, one of whom was another north Wales postmaster, Alan Bates.
After reporting discrepancies to the Post Office in 2000, Mr Bates, who ran the Craig-y-Don branch near Llandudno, was let go by the company.
However, this didn’t deter him from looking into the issue further and, in 2009, he was instrumental in establishing campaign group Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance (JFSA).
This organisation, made up of former sub-postmasters, then began a legal battle against the Post Office that would last years.
It was also around 2009 that Noel, now living in a council bungalow after being forced to sell his house, caught wind of there being something larger amiss after watching an S4C report into the issue.
“From that, I realised that there were more people than myself,” he said.
Noel, working for parcel delivery company Yodel after losing his Post Office, began meeting with other people who had found themselves in similar predicaments to his own, and over the coming months and years a community of sub-postmasters came together to share their experiences.
“From there, we started meeting in Warwickshire, and there were only about 30 of us in the beginning,” said Noel.
But the community “steadily grew” and momentum began to build.
Tragically, whilst battling to free his name over the past 12 months, Noel and his family were dealt with a heavy blow.
“I had three children, but I lost one last year to cancer. He was 51,” said Noel, discussing his eldest son, who he lost at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020.
Noel said his one regret about Friday’s verdict is that his son wasn’t there to witness his name being cleared.
“I would have loved to have seen him there with me. He drove me up and down the country to different places… He’d have been there yesterday,” said Noel.