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The Post Office Scandal Explained

Between 1999 and 2015, over 900 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses were wrongly accused of stealing money from the Post Office, after Horizon, a faulty IT system developed by tech company Fujitsu, edited numbers, causing financial discrepancies.


As per their contracts, the Post Office ordered the victims of Horizon to pay shortfalls themselves, which forced many into financial disrepair, losing their homes, livelihoods, and savings.


Often described as ‘the most widespread miscarriage of justice’ in British history, the scandal also saw many victims imprisoned and shunned by their families and friends. 


It is back under the spotlight after the release of the ITV series Mr Bates VS The Post Office.


Who is Mr Bates?


The mini-series brings to life the true story of Alan Bates, a former sub-postmaster who ran a Post Office branch in Llandudno, Wales. Mr. Bates was vital to exposing the scandal by uniting with other sub-postmasters/mistresses from around the country and creating the Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) in 2009.


Mr. Bates began noticing problems with the Horizon system almost immediately after it was distributed, with large amounts of money being registered as missing. Despite talking with multiple people on the Horizon helpline, the shortfalls continued to mount.


The Post Office repeatedly told him he was the only person to experience issues with Horizon, which we now know to be entirely untrue.


Eventually, Mr. Bates refused to pay for any more discrepancies and quickly became redundant, losing £65,000 of his savings.


Despite years of campaigning, there was not much progress until 2019.


That year, Mr. Bates, along with five other members of the JFSA, took the Post Office to court on behalf of 555 people. Finally, it was accepted that Horizon was the cause of the missing money.


The Post Office was ordered to pay £58 million in compensation to the victims; however, after legal fees, each claimant walked away with just £20,000.


The public inquiry is ongoing, and the Metropolitan Police is leading a two-year investigation into both the Post Office and Fujitsu. To date, just 98 convictions have been overturned, so justice very much continues to be fought for.


Mr. Bates told WalesOnline: ‘I will stay involved until everyone from the original group who is entitled to compensation receives the full financial redress they are eligible for.’


The extent of injustice


The ITV series documents the true extent of the scandal for those involved. A recent study found that an ‘alarmingly high’ number of victims suffer from PTSD symptoms and depression.


Seema Misra was eight weeks pregnant when she was ordered to spend fifteen months in prison after being wrongly convicted of stealing £74,000 from the Post Office. Speaking to The Sun, she said: ‘If I hadn't been pregnant, I would have taken my own life.’


While his wife was in prison, Davinder was attacked, and the couple also had to deal with being shunned by the community they used to be at the heart of. In 2021, Misra’s conviction was reversed, but she said the memories still haunt her.


It is widely documented that the scandal is responsible for four suicides.


Martin Griffiths tragically ended his life in 2013 after being falsely accused of stealing money at his Ellesmere Port Post Office branch. His family told newspapers that, following the accusations, his mental and physical health deteriorated.


Peter Huxham was sadly found dead after serving an eight-month prison sentence. At the time of his death, his marriage had broken down, and he was suffering from mental health issues.


Recent developments

The ITV series aired from the 1st to the 4th of January this year and has triggered a wave of action following outrage among the public, many of whom were only hearing the true stories of the scandal for the first time.


Within days, more than one million people signed a petition demanding Paula Vennells – the CEO of The Post Office from 2012 to 2019 – hand back the CBE she was honoured with by Queen Elizabeth in 2019 for ‘services to charity and the Post Office.’


January 9th – Vennells agreed to give up her CBE ‘with immediate effect’ and will ‘continue to focus on assisting the inquiry.’ 


The government was coming under increasing fire to respond to the TV series with tangible actions.


January 10th – The UK government announced new legislation to speed up the justice and compensation processes. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said in the House of Commons: ‘People who worked hard to serve their communities had their lives and their reputations destroyed through absolutely no fault of their own. The victims must get justice and compensation.’


The PM also announced that the 555 victims who took their cases to the High Court in 2019 will receive an upfront payment of £75,000.


January 11th – The Post Office Horizon inquiry restarted. It began in February 2022.


New evidence continues to emerge in the inquiry, including the shocking accusation that Post Office investigators were given bonuses for successfully prosecuting sub-postmasters.


When asked whether monetary incentives affected his actions during investigations, Mr. Thomas, a former Post Office investigator, said, ‘I’d probably be lying if I said no…”


January 19th – Fujitsu’s Europe Director, Paul Patterson, apologised to all sub-postmasters/mistresses and their families for Fujitsu’s part in the injustice. He also highlighted that Fujitsu was aware of flaws with the Horizon software as far back as 1999.


Patterson said: ‘We are determined to continue to support this inquiry, to get to the truth, wherever it lies.’


For those in the UK, the ITV series is available for streaming now on the ITVX app.


Photo credit: startupdonut

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