A POSTMISTRESS can hold her head high after a fraud conviction brought against her has been quashed in court.

Julie Cleife, 64, was given 100 hours community service and forced to pay costs after being wrongfully accused of stealing £25,000 from the Post Office in 2010.

The ex-postmistress of Over Wallop village shop, in Pound Road, has become one of the first victims of the Horizon IT scandal to have her sentence formally overturned.

Between 1995 and 2015, hundreds of postmasters were prosecuted for false accounting, fraud and theft after money appeared to go missing from their branch accounts.

The Post Office was aware of glitches in the Horizon computer terminals but pursued prosecutions anyway, causing untold misery and hurt to innocent workers.

Two months ago, the Post Office said it would not oppose 44 of the first 47 cases referred to the Court of Appeal with the first acquittals passed down at London’s Southwark Crown Court.

Mrs Cleife, whose name has been cleared at Southwark Crown Court, said: “I had packed it all away in a little box at the back of my mind, I didn’t want to bring it all up again.

“I was persuaded by friends and family to join the group who were appealing their convictions and I am glad I did.

“It has been difficult but to be honest, I have been very lucky in the village. People have been very supportive.”

“These people can finally hold their heads high again,” said solicitor Neil Hudgell, who represented Julie and five others who had their convictions overturned at the Court of Appeal on December 11.

Julie said she was pleased with the result.

“I knew I had done nothing wrong but it does feel nice to know I’m no longer seen as a criminal,” she said.

Julie and her husband Ian celebrated with a trip down the pub.

The ordeal of being falsely accused was “the most traumatic thing we’ve ever gone through”, her husband said.

“This is one of the biggest miscarriages of justice this country has ever seen. Unless people have been through it themselves, they would have no idea,” the 72-year-old said.

Speaking for the first time publicly about what happened, mother-of-three Julie said she noticed the money wasn’t adding up but had no clue why. “There was a lot of stress and worry. I knew I wasn’t taking it but I didn’t know where it was going,” she said.

After spending hours on the phone to the Post Office’s helpline, they didn’t reveal the problem could have been down to glitches in the Horizon software installed on the computer terminal.

Julie was ordered to pay the Post Office more than £25,000 which she and husband Ian cobbled together using life savings intended for their retirement. But that wasn’t enough for the Post Office, who doggedly pursued a conviction against Julie.

“They went through everything at the shop. They had all of our accounts and searched our house from top to bottom. They checked on our overseas spending and looked to see how much we spent on things like cars. They didn’t find a damn thing,” Ian said.

“I remember having to pack an overnight bag before going to Winchester Crown Court to be sentenced in November 2010,” Julie said.

“I didn’t know if I’d be going to prison or not. It was a horrible feeling,” she said.

“I don’t think anyone in our family has ever been in trouble with the law. I remember we were all sitting there quiet as mice,” the grandmother-of-two said.

“I remember that day in court, the judge asked the person representing the Post Office, ‘How do we know you haven’t got this lady’s money?’. I obviously couldn’t say anything but as it turns out, the Post Office did have my money.

“That was a little glimmer of hope. I’ve never forgotten that.”

Julie, who has held the paperwork for the accounts for all that time in case it was needed, now plans to burn them to put this ordeal behind her.

She, along with others who were wrongly accused, will now be looking to apply for compensation to cover loss of earnings and the emotional strain a conviction has placed on their lives.

After Julie resigned as postmistress for the shop, next to her home, she struggled to get work.

“I had a mortgage to pay but a criminal record. I applied for hundreds of jobs and couldn’t get anywhere,” she said.

In time, Julie started cooking and providing hot food for the village shop - run by a community association.

“I have been very lucky in Over Wallop, everyone has been so supportive,” she said.

Her husband Ian said he understands the Post Office is a “law unto themselves” and said he believes its former boss Paula Vennells, who dragged them to court, should be stripped of her CBE title awarded in the 2019 New Year’s Honours.

“I think it’s the right thing to do. I think she should pay back her £4.5million bonus,” he said.

The Post Office has launched a compensation scheme. A judge-led review will start next year.

In a statement, a spokesman for the Post Office said: “We have taken determined action to address the past... and to prevent such events ever happening again.”

Her husband Ian is calling on the Post Office to write to those who have had their convictions overturned to apologise.

A Post Office spokesman said: “We did not oppose these appeals and sincerely apologise for historical failings. We have taken determined action to address the past, ensuring there is redress for those affected and to prevent such events ever happening again.”

“Fundamental reforms have been made to forge a new relationship with postmasters, helping them to build thriving Post Office businesses for customers and communities throughout the UK.”

“The Post Office should write to every single person affected and apologise for the miscarriage of justice and the stress it has caused us all,” he said.

The couple, who have been married for 42 years, said they are looking forward to Julie’s retirement when she reaches 66.