ITV has kicked off the new year by broadcasting a captivating piece of drama: ‘Mr. Bates Vs The Post Office’, inspired by real-life events in the UK. The Post Office scandal is an ongoing investigation into a miscarriage of justice affecting postal workers and their families - but what is the real story?
The British Post Office scandal, referred to as the UK’s most extensive miscarriage of justice, spanning more than two decades, has left a trail of wrongful prosecutions and shattered lives.
This dark chapter involves hundreds of sub-postmasters facing charges of theft, false accounting, and fraud. As of January 2024, justice remains elusive, with no prosecutions against those responsible for the convictions, and many posties still searching for answers.
In 1996,International Computers Limited (ICL) began developing the Horizon computer accounting system for the Post Office. By 1999, under the umbrella of Japanese technology company Fujitsu, Horizon was introduced, intended to facilitate the integrated payment of social security benefits through post office branches.
However, complications emerged as the system incorrectly reported financial discrepancies at various branches. Royal Mail Sub-postmasters are required to pay these discrepancies out of pocket, whether it be a few pence, or thousands of pounds.
Since 1999, postal workers reported unexplained discrepancies. However, their concerns were ignored. Despite ongoing concerns, the Post Office leadership defended the Horizon systems, and forced sub-postmasters to rectify discrepancies or face legal action. Those who were unable or unwilling to pay were charged with fraud, false accounting, and theft by the Royal Mail. These prosecutions were largely based on IT evidence, with very few official inquiries by the Royal Mail.
With a criminal conviction, the Royal Mail was able to secure Proceeds of Crime Act orders against sub-postmasters, allowing them to seize their assets. Homes, cars, and personal belongings were seized from workers, and these proceedings are known to have resulted in homelessness, divorce, bankruptcy, and at least one suicide.
Prosecutions continued until 2015, with a scathing 2014 forensic report branding Horizon ‘not fit for purpose’, whilst the Post Office maintained "there is absolutely no evidence of any systemic issues with the computer system". The Initial Complaint Review and Mediation Scheme was terminated in 2015 and Royal Mail published a report clearing itself of any wrongdoing.
The aftermath of the scandal revealed a shocking number of overturned convictions since 2019, signalling the extent of the miscarriage of justice. A group action lawsuit brought by sub-postmasters resulted in 555 successful claims against the Post Office, and some compensation was issued not only to the claimants, but to other sub-postmasters not involved in the group action.
In response to the mounting pressure, the UK government launched an independent inquiry in 2020, led by retired Judge Wyn Williams. Later converted to a public inquiry in June 2021, this ongoing investigation scrutinises the faults in the IT system and explores the potential awareness of the Post Office and Fujitsu regarding these issues, providing a glimmer of hope for justice. This inquiry is due to conclude in 2024.
By 2022, 736 prosecutions had been identified, with 83 overturned convictions and more to come. The scandal has prompted a reassessment of the entire criminal justice system, with a 2019 BBC report dubbing the convictions "the UK's most widespread miscarriage of justice.
The repercussions of the scandal prompted Post Office chief executive Nick Read to announce in April 2021 that the Horizon system would be replaced with a new cloud-based IT system, signalling a shift towards rectifying the systemic issues that led to this grave miscarriage of justice.
As the public inquiry continues into 2024, the British Post Office scandal remains a stark reminder of the need for accountability and systemic reform within institutions entrusted with upholding justice.
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