The story of how Jacqueline McDonald’s life was turned upside down and how her jail sentence meant she missed the last birthday of her daughter, was outlined at the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry.
Jacqueline submitted a formal witness statement to the Inquiry and a summary of her evidence was read out by barrister Angela Patrick at the Inquiry’s Human Impact Hearings in Leeds.
The statement detailed the lasting impact of prison, being ordered to repay nearly £94,000, having her home searched and going bankrupt, how Jacqueline considered suicide and how her entire family had been affected.
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Jacqueline, described as “brave but petrified” during her prison ordeal, said how being taken away from her family was the worst punishment.
Ms Patrick said: “She says she never felt so lonely in her life. She tried to be brave but was petrified. She spent parts of her imprisonment with violent offenders and says she witnessed fights. She was in prison for four and a half months and spent another four and a half months on curfew with a tag.
"She wants the Inquiry to know her first grandchild was born while she was in prison. Tragically, her daughter died in November 2011 and Mrs McDonald wants the Inquiry to know that she was unable to spend her daughter's last birthday with her because she was in prison.”
The Inquiry was told Jacqueline had said: "I honestly don't know if my family will ever be the same again. I know I certainly won't be."
The statement told how Jacqueline was brought up in Preston, but lived in America for 21 years and had married an American citizen who worked for the military and Presidential Guard.
The family had moved back to England in 2005 and she became subpostmistress at Broughton Post Office in north Preston in the following year.
Things started to go wrong with the Post Office accounts and the alleged shortfall grew.
Ms Patrick said: “She first experienced a shortfall on the Horizon System of 2,000 euros and was made to pay back that shortfall. This was after the installation of a second Horizon System at her branch ... She would sometimes telephone the system helpline up to five times a week, but ultimately found this was unhelpful. The usual response she says was "it will work itself out". By the end of September 2008 Horizon was showing an excess cash amount at her branch of £50,000.”
After an audit on October 1, 2008, Jacqueline was suspended. She had felt relieved when the auditors arrives thinking they would be able to help her. But she described how: “then the mood quickly changed”.
Her contract was terminated in November 2008 and Jacqueline was devastated. In total she was asked to repay £93,947.93p.
The Inquiry was told: “Her husband and three children all worked in the shop so lost their livelihoods when it closed. Mrs McDonald subsequently had to declare herself bankrupt, as did her husband. She was prosecuted for theft and false accounting. Whilst waiting for her case to go to the Crown Court she experienced stress, anger and problems sleeping.”
Terrified at the prospect of prison Jacqueline described how she could not understand the PO’s actions saying: “The Post Office just seemed focused on getting a conviction and did not even agree to a forensic accountant being instructed."
The Inquiry was told that after seeing another subpostmistress go to trial, plead not guilty and get sent down Jacqueline was so deeply disturbed she decided to plead guilty to theft and false accounting.
She considered suicide and has since been diagnosed as having suffered with an adjustment disorder in the form of mixed anxiety and depression.
In January 2011 she was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment, with the judge telling her that she "had breached the community and the Post Office's trust".
The shamed subpostmistress was in prison for four and a half months and spent another four and a half months on curfew with a tag. A decade later, in April 2021, the conviction was quashed.Following her conviction the Post Office commenced Proceeds of Crime Act proceedings. First they took her car and, following a second hearing, it was agreed she could repay their debt to them for £1, as she was by then bankrupt.
The family decided to go back to America, but Jacqueline’s application for a Green (residency status) Card was at first refused because of her conviction. The US Embassy allowed her second application, but only if she travelled to America within a week.
Jacqueline’s words read out to the Inquiry evidenced how the impact of those nightmare years continues to this day. She noted her relationship with her mum, dad and her sister has never been the same and said: "The thought of going back to England makes me feel sick because every time I have to come back to the States I have been taken into the interrogation room because my conviction is attached to my passport."
The Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry is an independent public inquiry examining failings surrounding the Post Office’s Horizon IT system which led to the suspension and termination of contracts and the wrongful prosecution and conviction of subpostmasters and subpostmistresses. The inquiry is chaired by Si Wyn Williams who will, on its conclusion, publish a report setting out his findings and recommendations. The Inquiry is expected to conclude next year.