The recent airing of a TV drama in the United Kingdom has sparked renewed public outrage over a scandal that devastated the lives of numerous British postal workers. A faulty computer software led to the wrongful imprisonment of around 230 Post Office employees on charges of theft and fraud, with thousands more facing similar accusations. The TV show Mr Bates vs the Post Office: The Real Story portrayed the legal fight of sub-postmaster Alan Bates against the Post Office, thrusting the issue back into the spotlight at the beginning of the new year.
With this renewed interest, many questions surfaced, such as 'When did the Post Office scandal start, and what has come of it so far?' Stay with us as we delve into the distressing narrative and unfold the dimensions of this harrowing affair.
Table of Contents
What is the Scandal?
The Post Office scandal, also known as the Horizon scandal, began in 1999 and continued until 2015. The computer software Horizon, incorporated by the company in the same year, reported unexplained losses, which led to more than 900 sub-postmasters being wrongly prosecuted for misconduct and theft.
The Post Office launched private prosecutions, bringing many cases to court, resulting in the wrongful convictions of 700 people between 1999 and 2015, averaging one person per week. Other legal entities, including the Crown Prosecution Service, also brought forth 283 cases.
As a consequence, many of those wrongly convicted faced imprisonment, false accounting, and legal charges that forced them to compensate for the losses out of their funds, leading thousands to financial ruin. Over 3,500 branch owner-operators faced wrongful accusations, while more than 900 were prosecuted.
How and When Did the Post Office Scandal Start?
In 1999, the UK government was the sole shareholder of the Post Office. With the introduction of a centralized computer system from Fujitsu, known as Horizon, Accounting processes in approximately 14,000 branches underwent automation. Originally developed by UK company ICL, Fujitsu acquired Horizon in 1998. The system featured an electronic point of sale service (EPOSS), enabling subpostmasters and branch managers to input sales on a touchscreen, with automated background accounting.
During its rollout between 1999 and 2000, Horizon became the largest non-military IT project in Europe. Shortly after implementation, sub-postmasters experienced an unexpected surge in shortfalls in their branch accounts. Instead of recognizing the correlation between the new software and the emerging errors and addressing potential flaws in the system, the Post Office attributed the losses to the individual branch operators.
Who is Liable?
The Post Office, historically a public entity, retained extraordinary investigative and prosecutorial powers as an employer, even after its privatization in 2015. The Royal Mail's legal department, with roots traced to 1683, acted as investigators and prosecutors for the company. The lack of scrutiny over this authority persisted, even after the Postal Services Act of 2011, which floated most of its shares in the London stock market.
The adoption of Horizon software in 1999 marked the shift from paper accounting to the new, non-opt-in technology. However, with no set system to trace technical errors, the primary responsibility for accounting errors still fell on postmasters. Despite potential mistakes in the new system, a massive cover-up ensued, likely due to the project's scale and the government's stake in the Post Office.
The Post Office relentlessly defended itself against accusations, using legal teams and resources to silence sub-postmasters critical of the Horizon system. It also misled journalists, politicians, and others by providing false information. Subpostmasters who faced losses sought help from the call centre helpline, where they were wrongly told they were alone in experiencing Horizon problems. Unlike in a typical company, Post Office staff did not have the option to bring complaints to an external body.
Moreover, despite acknowledging faults in the centralized accounting software by 2010, the Post Office accused and prosecuted over 700 of the 2,500 branch owner-operators. Those protesting their innocence and citing software issues faced severe consequences such as criminal records, community service, or serving time in jail. The financial aftermath of criminal convictions left many struggling or bankrupt.
Uncovering the Truth
In 2004, Alan Bates, a Welsh sub-postmaster, reported unexplained shortfalls and his suspicion of Horizon malfunctions. In 2008, a Bridlington subpostmaster, Lee Castleton, shared a similar experience with Computer Weekly, leading to a broader investigation.
A year later, Computer Weekly revealed the story of seven subpostmasters facing losses, which amplified Bates' decade-long battle against the Post Office and United affected subpostmasters in their struggle.
Shortly after Computer Weekly publicized the subpostmasters' challenges, Bates was contacted by others facing similar issues. Together, they formed the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) and organized a pivotal meeting in Fenny Compton, Warwickshire, which drew participants nationwide and marked the inception of a collaborative campaign for justice.
Jo Hamilton, a former subpostmaster in Hampshire, faced issues in 2003 and was accused by the company of owing £36,000 based on false accounting. Succumbing to the threat, she agreed to plead guilty to avoid prison, but later, evidence proved the lack of theft. Despite her probation, Hamilton faced financial struggles, with her house remortgaged and South Warnborough villagers contributing a fund of £9,000.
After Computer Weekly exposed her case, MPs like James Arbuthnot and Kevan Jones got involved and began campaigning for the subpostmasters in Parliament, pressuring the company into launching a review and mediation scheme in 2012. They appointed forensic accountancy firm Second Sight to investigate subpostmasters' cases. Contrary to expectations, Second Sight's findings in a 2013 interim report revealed serious concerns about the Horizon system and the Post Office's handling of the situation.
However, in March 2015, the Second Sight investigation and the mediation scheme were abruptly terminated, indicating they were close to getting the truth. The final report pointed to potential miscarriages of justice due to rushed prosecutions. With obstacles from the Post Office, the JFSA turned to a group litigation order (GLO) for a new approach.
Battle for Justice
In 2015, after the cessation of the mediation scheme, the JFSA announced its plans for a group litigation where hundreds of victims would collectively sue the Post Office for the harm caused by the error-prone Horizon system. Despite the Post Office vouching for the system's robustness, claimants argued for its account shortfalls. Freeths Solicitors and Henderson Barristers Chambers prepared civil action for the High Court, and litigation funders financed legal costs.
Although around 1000 former subpostmasters applied, in 2017, a group of 555 sub-postmasters ultimately initiated legal action against the Post Office.
In January 2017, the High Court approved the Group Litigation Order (GLO) to manage the case. The trials started in November 2018, featuring evidence from Alan Bates; after two trials in 2019, focusing on the victims' contracts and the Horizon system, the jury ruled in favour of the subpostmasters.
The 555 claimants received £58m in compensation, but significant portions were absorbed by legal fees, with only £11m remaining. The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) affirmed the concerns about Horizon's errors and defects, which provided the victims with evidence for conviction appeals.
How Far Has Justice Been Served?
While campaigners secured the right to have their cases reviewed, as of 2024, only 95 convictions had been overturned. While the Post Office has multiple compensation schemes, the pace of disbursing payments remains sluggish. Some subpostmasters, facing continual financial struggles, have passed away without receiving the owed compensation.
After the 2019 High Court victory, a public inquiry into the scandal was launched in May 2021. Chaired by former judge Wyn Williams, the inquiry has investigated various sections, covering human impact, Horizon's operations, the company's awareness of errors and its legal actions against subpostmasters. It surfaced the widespread suffering caused by the Post Office, along with shocking evidence of the Post Office's prior knowledge of Horizon software bugs, its acts of witness manipulation, and evidence concealment during the trials.
Despite legal success, to this day, no Post Office or Fujitsu executives have faced accountability or repercussions for the scandal. Surprisingly, Fujitsu still benefits from government IT contracts, while former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells departed amid disgrace with a substantial payout. Unfortunately, the individuals who faced the worst consequences in this situation are the victims of the scandal.
Empowering Truth through Fiction
The January 2024 broadcast of the ITV drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office brought the extensive Post Office scandal to a broader audience, demonstrating the true power of media narratives and storytelling in shaping public opinion and prompting social change.
Actor Toby Jones, who played Alan Bates, shared: "It is shocking just how appalling this scandal is. When people watch the drama, if we have done our job, it will make them see a senselessness and vindictiveness to this scandal that makes you wonder how on earth it isn't being spoken about more."
The scandal, spanning 24 years and initially reported by Computer Weekly in 2009, re-entered news headlines following the ITV drama. The renewed public outrage prompted unprecedented government action in the form of emergency legislation to exonerate hundreds of convicted subpostmasters.
MPs sought an audience with Fujitsu and Post Office executives, resulting in Fujitsu apologizing and acknowledging its role in the scandal. The Japanese company also expressed a moral obligation to repay the costs, including financial redress for the victims.
The enduring Post Office scandal highlights the immense injustice and corporate negligence faced by subpostmasters for over two decades. While the recent resurgence of public awareness, catalyzed by the ITV drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office, has brought the true extent of this scandal to the forefront, it also prompts questions about the delayed coverage and government response. While the emergency legislation offers hope for remedy, justice remains incomplete until there is true responsibility and complete redress for victims. This scandal emphasizes the need for robust oversight, corporate accountability, and systemic reforms to prevent such egregious miscarriages of justice in the future.
When did the Post Office scandal start?
The Post Office scandal began in 1999 and went on till 2015. However, an independent inquiry, as well as a police investigation into potential fraud offences by Post Office Ltd, are ongoing to this day. Redressal to victims is also still being carried out.
What was the Post Office accounts scandal?
The Post Office scandal, spanning from 1999 to 2015, started with the flawed accounting software Horizon, supplied by Fujitsu, whose faulty data outcomes were blamed on innocent subpostmasters, thousands of whom faced false accusations and convictions for theft, fraud, and false accounting.
When was Horizon introduced in the Post Office?
Horizon, a software developed by the Japanese company Fujitsu, was introduced in the Post Office in 1999 to perform accounting and inventory management functions. The system faced swift criticism, with subpostmasters reporting bugs, particularly for generating inaccurate shortfalls, often in the thousands of pounds.