March 12, 2024

Bowling - The UK post office scandal!

A four-part television drama, Mr Bates vs the Post Office, was broadcast on ITV in January 2024, after which the scandal became a major news story and political issue. The same month, Sunak announced that the government would introduce legislation to exonerate wrongly convicted subpostmasters. 

As of January 2024, most of those wrongly convicted are still waiting to have their convictions overturned, the public inquiry is ongoing, and the Metropolitan Police is investigating individuals from the Post Office and its software provider, Fujitsu. In January 2024, claims emerged that a previous Post Office accounting system known as Capture, used by some post offices in the 1990s, had caused similar problems to Horizon.

However, the victims are hopeful, that justice will win. The ITV Drama is the perfect example of how the media can use its power in a positive way, as opposite to my previous blog post about Richard Allensworth Jewell. 

The British Post Office scandal or Horizon scandal involved faulty accounting software, provided by Fujitsu and known as Horizon, creating false shortfalls in the accounts of thousands of subpostmasters. The prime minister, Rishi Sunak, described it as one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in the history of the United Kingdom. Between 1999 and 2015, over 900 subpostmasters were convicted of theft, fraud and false accounting based on faulty Horizon data, with about 700 of these prosecutions carried out by the Post Office. Other subpostmasters were prosecuted but not convicted, forced to cover Horizon shortfalls with their own money, or had their contracts terminated. The court cases, criminal convictions, imprisonments, loss of livelihoods and homes, debts and bankruptcies, took a heavy toll on the victims and their families, leading to stress, illness, divorce and, in at least four cases, suicide.

Although many subpostmasters had reported problems with the new software, the Post Office had insisted that Horizon was robust and failed to disclose its knowledge of faults in the system while securing convictions. In May 2009, Computer Weekly broke the story about problems with Horizon, and in September 2009 subpostmaster Alan Bates launched the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA). In 2012, following pressure from campaigners and a number of Members of Parliament, led by James Arbuthnot, the Post Office appointed forensic accountants from the firm Second Sight to conduct an investigation into Horizon. Second Sight concluded that Horizon contained faults that could result in accounting discrepancies, but the Post Office said that there were no systemic (system wide) problems with the software.

In 2017, 555 subpostmasters led by Bates brought a group action in the High Court against the Post Office. After the judge ruled in 2019 that the subpostmasters' contracts with the Post Office were unfair and that Horizon contained bugs, errors and defects, the case was settled out of court for £58 million, which left the claimants with about £20,000 each after legal costs. The government later agreed to supplement their awards. The judge's rulings in the case paved the way for subpostmasters to challenge their convictions in the courts and led to the prime minister Boris Johnson's announcement in February 2020 that the government would establish an independent inquiry into the scandal. The Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry was set up later that year, and was converted into a statutory public inquiry in June 2021.

Courts began to quash convictions from December 2020. By February 2024, 100 of the subpostmasters' convictions had been overturned in court. In January 2024, plans for a blanket exoneration were announced by the government. Those wrongfully convicted became eligible for compensation from the Post Office, as did more than 2,750 subpostmasters who had been affected by the scandal but had not been convicted. By January 2024, the Post Office had paid out £153 million to claimants, with 64% of all those affected by the scandal having received full and final compensation.

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