The Post Office Horizon scandal, which has recently made headlines, has been described as the widest miscarriage of justice in UK history. Computer Weekly has played a crucial role in uncovering the truth behind this scandal.
In 1999, the UK government, the sole shareholder of the Post Office, introduced automated accounting processes in around 14,000 branches. This involved implementing a central computer system supplied by Fujitsu, replacing traditional paper-based accounting practices.
However, issues soon arose as subpostmasters started experiencing unexplained financial shortfalls. Instead of investigating and resolving the problems, the Post Office blamed the branch operators, leading to prosecutions, bankruptcies, and dismissals.
The Horizon system, developed by ICL and later acquired by Fujitsu, is the software at the center of this scandal. It includes an electronic point of sale service that allows subpostmasters and branch workers to enter sales data using touchscreens, with automated accounting processes in the background. When it was rolled out in 1999/2000, it was the largest non-military IT project in Europe.
The Horizon system caused a significant increase in unexplained financial shortfalls for subpostmasters. The paper-based accounting methods that could have helped track down the causes were no longer available, making it nearly impossible for subpostmasters to prove their innocence in cases of accounting discrepancies.
This scandal affected subpostmasters who run Post Office branches but are not employees of the organization. Many of them also operate retail businesses connected to the Post Office. Hundreds of subpostmasters were prosecuted for crimes such as theft and false accounting, resulting in prison sentences, bankruptcies, and ruined lives. Some individuals tragically took their own lives due to the stress caused by this scandal.
The Post Office deliberately hid the Horizon problems by instructing its call center staff to deny experiencing any issues. It used its legal teams and financial resources to defend itself against accusations and even lied to journalists and politicians who questioned the reliability of the Horizon system.
To suppress subpostmasters from challenging the Horizon system, the Post Office used criminal and civil legal actions. If subpostmasters sought expert IT advice or continued to voice their concerns, the Post Office would find ways to silence them. This included paying off subpostmasters and forcing them to sign non-disclosure agreements.
Computer Weekly played a vital role in exposing this scandal. Starting in 2004, the publication documented the experiences of subpostmasters facing unexplained financial losses. Its investigations revealed that the Post Office was lying to subpostmasters and brought attention to their shared struggles. Computer Weekly continues to investigate and report on this scandal.
Alan Bates, a former subpostmaster, took a leading role in fighting against the Post Office’s actions. He set up a website to connect with other subpostmasters facing similar issues, leading to the formation of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA). The JFSA organized meetings, campaigned for justice, and eventually initiated a group litigation against the Post Office.
In 2019, the High Court ruled in favor of the subpostmasters in the group litigation order. The court exposed the bugs, errors, and defects in the Horizon system that could cause accounting shortfalls. Compensation of £58 million was awarded to the claimants, but after costs, only £11 million remained to be shared among them. This judgment also provided evidence for hundreds of convicted subpostmasters to appeal their convictions.
In December 2020, the first wrongful convictions based on Horizon evidence were quashed, and more convictions continue to be overturned. The Post Office scandal is considered the widest miscarriage of justice in UK history.
Despite the High Court judgment and the passing of four years, most subpostmasters have not received the compensation they are owed. The Post Office’s compensation schemes are slow, leaving many subpostmasters in financial distress, and some have even passed away without receiving their due compensation.
In May 2021, a statutory public inquiry into the scandal was launched, chaired by former judge Wyn Williams. The inquiry has exposed the extreme suffering of the subpostmasters and revealed the Post Office’s knowledge of Horizon system issues, witness tampering, and evidence hiding during trials.
So far, none of the Post Office or Fujitsu executives have been held accountable, while former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells walked away with a significant payout. Calls have been made to strip Vennells of her CBE, and one subpostmaster declined an OBE due to ongoing suffering and the retention of honors by those involved in the scandal.
In January 2024, an ITV drama titled “Mr. Bates vs the Post Office” brought further attention to the extent of the scandal, highlighting the appalling treatment of innocent subpostmasters.