A woman from Preston was terrified into a guilty plea and ended up leaving the country due to its impact after being directly and wrongfully affected by the Post Office sub-postmasters scandal.Advertisement
Jacqueline McDonald was one of the “Post Office 39,” a group of former sub-postmasters and post-mistresses who were convicted of offences including theft, false accounting, and fraud, based on information from a computer system called Horizon which suggested that money had gone missing from post-office branch accounts.
Ms McDonald pleaded guilty to theft and to six counts of false accounting. She was sentenced to a total term of imprisonment of 18 months. A confiscation order was made in the sum of £99,759.60. As a result of the proceedings against her, Ms McDonald was forced to file for bankruptcy. Her conviction was overturned and she bravely maintained her innocence despite her guilty plea.
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The dramatisation of the Post Office scandal has brought the wrongful prosecutions of hundreds of people back to the front of our minds.
Mr Bates vs The Post Office, which is being broadcast across four nights this week on ITV1, depicts the real-life stories of those sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses who were falsely accused of theft, fraud and false accounting.
Between 2000 and 2014, more than 700 staff members were falsely prosecuted based on incorrect information from the Post Office’s Horizon computer system, installed and maintained by Fujitsu.
Some were imprisoned following convictions for false accounting and theft, while many were ruined financially, and some have since died.
One such person who was forced to deal with the impact of being prosecuted despite being innocent was Jacqueline McDonald.
Jacqueline McDonald’s life was impacted on enormous level. Her jail sentence meant she missed the last birthday of her daughter, she was forced to file for bankruptcy and she left the UK after feeling disconnected from her family and friends in the Preston community due to her conviction.
Jacqueline submitted a formal witness statement to the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry in 2022 which outlines the impact her conviction had on her. That is what is quoted below. The conviction was overturned in 2021 along with 38 others.
Jacqueline McDonald was brought up in Preston but lived in the USA for 21 years. She ran a gym and a farm, as well as being employed as a nurse by the British Embassy. She met her husband in the US, and he worked for the military.
Jacqueline moved back to England in 2005. She worked for British Aerospace before becoming a sub-postmistress in Broughton in December 2006.
A second Horizon system was installed as a result of the business’ expansion in 2007.
She said in her statement: “This was when our problems started. It was confusing when shortfalls started increasing. I started up the second Horizon system and it showed a shortfall in foreign currency of 2000 Euros. This was never resolved, and I was made by my manager to pay the shortfall.”
She claims she asked for further training but was refused. She described staff as unhelpful in dealing with shortfalls that she was told ‘will work itself out’. She explained to her manager that she had recorded shortfalls.
As covered by the dramatisation, it was the responsibility of the sub-postmistress to pay for those shortfalls. They were increasing in volume and regularity. By September 2008, Horizon showed a shortfall of £50,000.
Jacqueline said she was made aware of this on October 1, 2008.
She said: “My manager came into my office and told me that I should have a notice that she needed to collect this sum from me. I then saw a message which she showed me on screen I had never been aware of before. I was completely confused by this.”
Auditors came within two hours and Jacqueline was suspended. Her property was searched.
On November 2008, following an interview in which she describes feeling scared, her contract was terminated by the Post Office. Proceeds of crime proceedings were then instigated in 2009.
The shortfalls at Broughton Post Office continued after her exit. Her replacement was signed off sick with anxiety and depression as she could not pay the shortfalls.
Arrest and court
Jacqueline said she received a phone call from a police officer who worked close to the Broughton Post Office. The Post Office had instructed the officer to arrest her.
When she attended the police station, she said that the kindness of that police officer meant that she was not placed in handcuffs or a locked cell.
She initially pleaded not guilty at Magistrates Court. On advice, she later pleaded ‘guilty without admission’ at Crown Court in an attempt to avoid a custodial sentence.
She was advised that four years imprisonment was likely if she did not plead guilty.
She said: “It was a very stressful period, especially as I became aware I was facing a prison sentence of around four years if I could not repay the money. I wanted to instruct a forensic accountant to prove my innocence, but I was unable to afford the fees for this.
“Whilst waiting for my case to go to the Crown Court, I experienced severe stress, anger and problems sleeping.”
One aspect that influenced her decision to plead guilty was attending the trial of another Sub-Postmistress. She pleaded not guilty and was imprisoned. She described herself as being ‘deeply disturbed’ by this.
In January 2011, she was sentenced to 18 months and told she had breached the community’s and the Post Office’s trust.
She said: “This was very upsetting knowing I had done nothing wrong. I didn’t even take anything with me as I was not told to pack a bag before attending Court. I was taken to Styal Prison in Manchester. The prison van had what were like kennels inside. It was an open prison and I stayed there for 21 days. Once the door was locked, I burst into tears and sobbed.”
She missed her daughter’s 18th birthday as a result and said she couldn’t even telephone her. Her first grandchild was also born. She spent four-and-a-half months in prison, then another four-and-a-half with a tag. She was then on probation.
Her conviction would later cause issues when she attempted to leave for the USA.
As a result of the events above, Jacqueline lost her income from the Post Office. However, her husband and three children also worked in the shop and lost their income too.
Being ordered to pay almost £100,000 back as a result of the proceeds of crime proceedings meant that her and her husband had to file for bankruptcy. They were blacklisted for credit as a result.
She was forced to pay £1 to settle the debt, as well as losing her car. The Daily Mirror reported on this, with one Preston councillor saying ‘British justice does sometimes leave you scratching your head.”
She said: “I felt like everyone in Preston and Lancashire knew.”
At this time, Jacqueline said she stayed at home a lot and did not make time to see people. They eventually relocated to American because of ‘the situation with The Post Office’.
She said she believes her reputation was harmed in the area where she lived. She said: “There were newspaper articles which reported on the criminal proceedings and conviction. There were front page headlines in the Lancashire Evening Post.”
She believes the impact on her family was greater. She said her husband and children all suffered from the embarrassment and stress of her being wrongly accused and sent to prison. She said her husband and son were stared at and made to feel unwelcome when they went to the pub for a drink.
She said: “The biggest effect upon me of what happened is that it has taken my confidence away. I have always been confident in what I do and what I believe, but I have become isolated and withdrawn because of what happened. I still feel ashamed because I don’t tell anyone about it, and so I always feel like I have a guilty secret.”
Jacqueline undertook cognitive behavioural therapy, which she says helped.
She said: “The impact on my family has been huge, and I am conscious that my involvement with the Post Office caused the people I love to suffer.”
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