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For a number of month, the British Post Office scandal has been a leading item in British news largely thanks to a an ITV television drama. For those who don't know about the scandal, the short version is that the Post Office falsely accused a large number of postmasters of fraud and embezzlement of funds based on errors produced by Fujitsu accounting software. It later became clear that the Post Office was aware of problems with the software but pursued the postmasters regardless.

One aspect that I found interesting was that dating back to 1683, the Post Office has a history of carrying out private investigations and bringing private prosecutions even though it has been granted no special rights to do so. In the UK private prosecutions are permitted.

Are their other corporations / government bodies that have a similar history of private investigation and prosecution? What about in other jurisdictions which permit private prosecutions besides for the UK? Or is there something unique about the British Post Office and how it was run?

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    You say it has been granted no special rights to do so, and then immediately follow that by In the UK private prosecutions are permitted. Which is it? Also, there were historically "private" companies that acted like sovereign entities (East India Company comes to mind), but they haven't existed for centuries.
    – littleadv
    Apr 19 at 21:17
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    Private prosecutions are permitted for anyone in the UK. The Post Office has no special privelages in this regard.
    – Ben Cohen
    Apr 19 at 21:38
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    It's not clear to me where to draw the line here. For example, every company in the world is constantly investigating the correct execution of important internal processes and if something is off also prosecuting them. Why would the answer not be "every company" then? Apr 20 at 10:24
  • I wonder how the rule against double jeopardy works when private prosecutions are allowed. Suppose Alice murders Bob, and her friend Clive intentionally prosecutes her ineffectively, resulting in a finding of "not guilty". Can a second prosecution take place on the basis that the first prosecutor was not really trying, or would the first prosecution have to be stopped before it completed?
    – kaya3
    Apr 20 at 13:28
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    Should possibly be tagged "England and Wales" rather than "UK". AIUI, the Horizon-related cases in Scotland were not prosecuted privately (private prosecutions being generally much more difficult to bring in Scotland than in England and Wales). Apr 20 at 15:51

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The RSPCA - a registered charity - has a history of private prosecutions against individuals who they believe have committed offences against animals in England and Wales. They have a web page describing this.

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  • Do they still need a government-appointed judge and/or jury to review the evidence for a conviction? Apr 23 at 13:30
  • @JonathanReez It will be the same judge and jury as any other trial. Most prosecutions in the UK are carried out by "the crown". But anyone can bring a private prosecution if they have enough money to pay the prosecution lawyers' fees.
    – Simon B
    Apr 23 at 20:49
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In the UK private prosecutions are permitted.

Not just permitted, but in fact historically it was the norm.

In terms of public prosecution, the national Crown Prosecution Service (effectively, the public prosecutor) dates only from the 1980s.

Prior to that, regional police forces conducted prosecutions on the public behalf. Police forces had emerged piecemeal through the 19th century.

And prior to that, there were local sheriffs, who were not police officers in the general sense, but something more like court officials who had responsibilities for tax collection and maintaining public order.

But before there was coverage by police forces, criminal complaints would very often be brought by private citizens.

There is an ancient general right for any natural person to make a criminal complaint to a court, and for a criminal complaint the plaintiff (or "complainant" in modern parlance) does not need to have any personal interest in the matter.

And as corporations have emerged as a legal concept, certain rights and protections have been extended to these. So for example, it is possible to criminally violate the rights of a corporation, as distinct from whether any associated natural person has been violated.

Are their other corporations / goverment bodies that have a similar history of private investigation and prosecution? What about in other jurisdictions which permit private prosecutions besides for the UK? Or is there something unique about the British Post Office and how it was run?

I'm unclear to what extent the Post Office was triggering the criminal complaints directly, or whether it was simply retaining a lawyer who made the complaint on their behalf in his own capacity as a natural person.

However, the Post Office is a very old organisation dating from the 17th century, and it would not surprise me if there were a degree of special rules or preserved ancient practices.

However, the main reason why the Post Office would have an internal prosecution function, is primarily because its operations were special and unique (and fully national in scope, even centuries ago), and because the legal regime under which it operates in general is unique (and therefore many of the offences are special).

This requires people with special knowledge of the law as it applies to the Post Office, and specialist investigation skills to understand the operation and detect the typical offences.

Back when the Post Office was crucial for national security, it may also have required officials to be specially vetted, and knowledge to be kept isolated from other general law enforcement organisations.

Until the 1980s, the "post office" had also become responsible for many kinds of national telecoms. It also played a key role in the administration of social security until well into the 2000s.

Whereas today's Post Office organisation is privatised and almost a vestigial remnant of what it used to be.

It's likely that other national public organisations would have once conducted their own prosecutions. I imagine electric and gas boards would once have done so - and the privatised successors certainly still retain specialist investigators, although I'm unsure about the mechanics of how a prosecution is lodged.

Although I realise this question is about prosecutions, it's important to realise that the Horizon issue wasn't caused mainly by private prosecutions.

It was caused primarily by the privatisation of the IT function in the Post Office, and across the government in the 1990s, which led to a drop in quality standards and a drop in integrity amongst its overseers.

It was also caused by legal reforms around the same time (and still in place) that didn't require the workings of IT systems to be properly explained in evidence or in court, or to be accessible to defendants.

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  • The first half of this answer is good, but the second half contains a lot of speculation. Would you be able to provide some sources to back this up - or failing that, remove some of the guesses? Apr 20 at 13:42
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    "the Horizon issue wasn't caused mainly by private prosecutions.": not necessarily. There has been commentary that if the Crown Prosecution Service had been running these prosecutions, they may have dropped them, on the grounds that the CPS has a higher threshold for proceeding with a case than the Post Office. Apr 20 at 13:46
  • " it would not surprise me if there were a degree of special rules or preserved ancient practices.": apparently not. There are some organisations with special powers in this regard, but the Post Office doesn't appear to be one of them. For example, see here: theguardian.com/uk-news/2024/jan/12/… Apr 20 at 13:47
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    If I could accept two answers, I'd accept this as well. The background info is really interesting.
    – Ben Cohen
    Apr 20 at 13:54
  • @SteveMelnikoff, I know I stray a little into guessing at times, but there are also factual claims interleaved which I felt may be helpful in the round. The CPS might well have pursued fewer cases, but I'm not entirely convinced that would have been because it was better able than the judiciary to cut directly to the heart of the problem that the financial accounts which formed the basis of prosecutions were effectively being fraudulently altered by a privatised and external IT supplier. (1/2)
    – Steve
    Apr 20 at 16:33
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The Private Eye Special Reports Justice Lost In The Post has the following background information about the history of the Post Office performing private prosecutions:

For two decades these and previous directors and ministers presided over a policy of persecution. The instrument of this was the Post Office’s investigation branch, now the Security and Investigations Service.

The world’s oldest criminal investigation force, it dates from when guards accompanied royal mail carriages to fend off spies and highwaymen – and it still puts protecting the crown ahead of justice.

The more worrying part is (emphasis mine):

Several sub-postmasters told the Eye of bullying and underhand tactics such as extracting “evidence” without lawyers present.

Investigators then handed cases to in-house prosecutors (unlike police investigations, which go to the independent Crown Prosecution Service). Second Sight’s forensic auditors found prosecutors reaching “agreements whereby no mention was to be made in court, by the defendant, of any criticism of the Horizon system” and that “decisions to prosecute may have been contrary to the [prosecutors’] code…”

This is a partial answer, to the Or is there something unique about the British Post Office and how it was run part of the question.

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TV Licensing brings an average of almost 130 prosecutions a day under its prosecution policy for failure to pay TV licensing fees, sometimes where the defendant's capacity is in doubt.

Transport for London brings prosecutions for fare evasion.

But these are still public authorities, even as they don't go through Crown Prosecution Service and may have outsourced parts of this process (TV Licensing is a trademark of the BBC, but it's largely used by contractors like Capita that handle the prosecutions), which makes them not officially "private prosecutions," even if similar concerns can sometimes apply.

A letter from the Ministry of Justice provides information on non-government organizations that have brought private prosecutions in the last couple years. This letter shows that no companies in the UK are currently carrying out more than a small number of private prosecutions annually:

The number of private prosecutions brought by public and private bodies Caveats: • This separation depends on the reviewer’s assessment of whether a body is a public or private body. Prosecutions by most public bodies are not private prosecutions. Public organisations Private organisations Individuals or unknown 2022 5 10 180 2023 2 60 179

46 of the applications in 2023 were made by just three people, and those were all refused. One redacted organization is listed as applying for 53 private prosecutions in 2023 (the nature of these are unknown), while none of the others have more than 4. So it's not a tool that UK corporations outside of government are really using much at all.

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Wikipedia has an article on private prosecution, including jurisdictions where it's a thing and it's interesting history in the United Kingdom.

Six US states (Kansas, Nevada, North Dakota, New Mexico, Nebraska, and Oklahoma) also have citizen grand juries where a private citizen can collect signatures to convene a grand jury. This was used in Kansas a few years ago when a prosecutor declined to file rape charges (the citizen grand jury declined to file charges as well).

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  • Thanks, I am aware of the various jurisdictions that permit private prosecutions. My question is whether there are companies that have regularly availed themselves of the opportunity to carry out private prosecutions besides for the Post Office?
    – Ben Cohen
    Apr 19 at 21:41
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    Several states in the Northeast in the U.S. have private prosecutions that can commenced without a grand jury.
    – ohwilleke
    Apr 19 at 22:54

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