Post Office scandal: What the Horizon saga is all about

Post Office scandal: What the Horizon saga is all about

A group of former sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses have seen their names cleared at the Court of Appeal after the UK’s most widespread miscarriage of justice.

It marks the latest stage of a computer scandal, and a long and complex legal battle, which could leave the Post Office with a huge compensation bill.

Between 2000 and 2014, the Post Office prosecuted 736 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses – an average of one a week – based on information from a recently installed computer system called Horizon.

Some went to prison following convictions for false accounting and theft, many were financially ruined and have described being shunned by their communities. Some have since died.

After 20 years, campaigners won a legal battle to have their cases reconsidered, after claiming that the computer system was flawed.

Horizon was introduced into the Post Office network from 1999. The system, developed by the Japanese company Fujitsu, was used for tasks such as transactions, accounting and stocktaking.

Sub-postmasters complained about bugs in the system after it reported shortfalls, some of which amounted to many thousands of pounds.

Some sub-postmasters attempted to plug the gap with their own money, even remortgaging their homes, in an (often fruitless) attempt to correct an error.

Many former postmasters and postmistresses have described how the saga ruined their lives.

They had to cope with the long-term impact of a criminal conviction and imprisonment, some at a time when they had been pregnant or had young children.

Marriages broke down, and courts have heard how some families believe the stress led to health conditions, addiction and premature deaths.

“The past nine years have been hellish and a total nightmare. This conviction has been a cloud over my life,” said former Oxfordshire sub-postmaster Vipinchandra Patel, whose name was cleared late last year.

Seema Misra was pregnant with her second child when she was convicted of theft and sent to jail in 2010. She said that she had been “suffering” for 15 years as a result of the saga.

In December 2019, at the end of a long-running series of civil cases, the Post Office agreed to settle with 555 claimants.

It accepted it had previously “got things wrong in [its] dealings with a number of postmasters”, and agreed to pay £58m in damages.

The claimants received a share of £12m, after legal fees were paid.

A few days later, a High Court judgement said that the Horizon system was not “remotely robust” for the first 10 years of its use, and still had problems after that.

The judge said the system contained “bugs, errors and defects”, and that there was a “material risk” that shortfalls in branch accounts were caused by the system.

Following the High Court ruling, more cases were brought forward to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), an independent body which investigates suspected miscarriages of justice.

So far, it has referred 51 cases back to the courts. To date, six people’s convictions have been overturned.

Another 42 cases were heard in one hearing at the Court of Appeal in March.

Of these, 39 were unopposed by the Post Office on at least one count – generally that the person did not receive a fair trial.

With these 39 convictions quashed, it becomes the most widespread, known, miscarriage of justice in the UK.

The ruling has also determined that these 39 convictions were also “an affront to the public conscience”.

That means the postmasters may pursue civil action against the Post Office for malicious prosecution, seeking significant sums in damages.

Three more cases referred by the CCRC have yet to be heard.

It is also reviewing 22 more cases, and inviting others to make an application, which could go directly to the Court of Appeal, if a conviction is believed to be unsafe.

The Post Office has set up a historic shortfall scheme designed to repay those who lost out, but this excludes those who were part of the High Court settlement.

More than 2,400 claims have been made to the scheme. Ministers said this was more than the Post Office expected and held the potential for the government having to step in to cover some of the cost.

An inquiry set up “to establish a clear account of the failings of the Horizon IT computer system, and assess whether lessons have been learnt at the Post Office” will report in the summer.

The Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance campaign group, which was instrumental in the High Court battle, refused to take part, describing it as a whitewash and calling for a full public inquiry instead.

So far, nobody at the Post Office or Fujitsu has been held accountable, although the High Court judge said he would refer Fujitsu to the Director of Public Prosecutions for possible further action because he had “grave concerns” about the evidence of the company’s employees.

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