The government is considering measures to clear the names of hundreds of sub-postmasters convicted in the Post Office Horizon scandal, with many victims still fighting to have their convictions overturned.
More than 700 branch managers were given criminal convictions when faulty accounting software made it look as though money was missing from their sites.
It has been described as the most widespread miscarriage of justice in UK history.
What is this all about?
Between 1999 and 2015, the Post Office prosecuted 736 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses – an average of one a week – based on information from a recently installed computer system called Horizon.
Some went to prison following convictions for false accounting and theft, many were financially ruined and have described being shunned by their communities. Some have since died.
After 20 years, campaigners won a legal battle to have their cases reconsidered, after claiming that the computer system was flawed.
A public inquiry into the scandal is ongoing but to date, many victims of the scandal are still fighting to have their convictions overturned or to secure full compensation.
What was Horizon?
Horizon was introduced into the Post Office network from 1999. The system, developed by the Japanese company Fujitsu, was used for tasks such as transactions, accounting and stocktaking.
Sub-postmasters complained about bugs in the system after it reported shortfalls, some of which amounted to many thousands of pounds.
Some sub-postmasters attempted to plug the gap with their own money due to their contracts stating they were responsible for any shortfalls, even remortgaging their homes, in an (often fruitless) attempt to correct an error.
What was the effect on individuals?
Many former postmasters and postmistresses have described how the saga ruined their lives.
They had to cope with the long-term impact of a criminal conviction and imprisonment, some at a time when they had been pregnant or had young children.
Marriages broke down, and courts have heard how some families believe the stress led to health conditions, addiction and premature deaths.
“The past nine years have been hellish and a total nightmare. This conviction has been a cloud over my life,” said former Oxfordshire sub-postmaster Vipinchandra Patel, whose name was cleared in 2020.
Seema Misra was pregnant with her second child when she was convicted of theft and sent to jail in 2010. She said that she had been “suffering” for 15 years as a result of the saga.
Lee Castleton, a former postmaster, has said his life has been ruined by the Post Office.
What was the first turning point for victims?
In December 2019, at the end of a long-running series of civil cases, the Post Office agreed to settle with 555 claimants.
It accepted it had previously “got things wrong in [its] dealings with a number of postmasters”, and agreed to pay £58m in damages. The claimants received a share of £12m, after legal fees were paid.
A few days later, a High Court judgement said that the Horizon system was not “remotely robust” for the first 10 years of its use, and still had problems after that.
The judge said the system contained “bugs, errors and defects”, and that there was a “material risk” that shortfalls in branch accounts were caused by the system.
Why is the Post Office allowed to prosecute people without the police?
A private prosecution is a prosecution that can be started by a private individual, or entity who/which is not acting on behalf of the police or other prosecuting authority, according to the Crown Prosecution Service.
The right to bring private prosecutions is preserved by section 6(1) of the Prosecution of Offences Act (POA) 1985. It the reason why organisations such as the RSPCA are allowed to bring cases against people.
The legislation allows companies or organisations to investigate and appoint lawyers to present evidence in court.
The Post Office says it has not undertaken any private prosecutions related to Horizon since 2015.
Why are people talking about it now?
An ITV drama on the scandal which aired in early January has thrust the issue back in the spotlight, with another 50 new potential victims coming forward. The Met Police has also announced a new investigation into the Post Office over potential fraud offences.
And in December, an independent board overseeing compensation related to the scandal, called for people wrongly accused of theft and false accounting to all have their convictions overturned.
Its chair Professor Chris Hodges, said while individuals could apply to have their convictions overturned, the small number of cases meant the “current approach is not working”.
What has happened to the criminal convictions and compensation?
Following the High Court ruling, more cases were brought forward to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), an independent body which investigates suspected miscarriages of justice.
To date, a total of 93 convictions have been overturned. This included 39 postmasters’ convictions being quashed in a single ruling at the Court of Appeal in April 2021. The judges determined that these convictions were also “an affront to the public conscience”.
But only 30 people have agreed “full and final settlements”.
Some 54 cases have resulted in convictions being upheld, people being refused permission to appeal, or people withdrawing from the process, according to the Post Office.
The amount of payments for full and final compensation paid out to victims stands at £17.3m.
What about other affected postmasters and postmistresses?
The Post Office has set up a separate Historic Shortfall Scheme (HSS) designed to repay those who lost out, but this has excluded those who were part of the High Court settlement. The government has now said those blocked from the scheme would be compensated “in parallel” to those who can use the shortfall programme.
More than 2,400 claims have been made to the HSS scheme. Ministers said this was more than the Post Office expected and held the potential for the government having to step in to cover some of the cost.
The inquiry set up “to establish a clear account of the failings of the Horizon IT computer system, and assess whether lessons have been learnt at the Post Office” was given greater powers to investigate and call witnesses to give evidence. This followed pressure on the government after convictions started to be quashed.
It will take into account whether the Post Office knew about faults in the IT system and will also ask how staff shouldered the blame.
Has anyone been held accountable?
So far, nobody at the Post Office or Fujitsu has been held accountable, although the High Court judge said he would refer Fujitsu to the Director of Public Prosecutions for possible further action because he had “grave concerns” about the evidence of the company’s employees.
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