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Home / News / TV drama could bring real-life justice for postmasters

TV drama could bring real-life justice for postmasters

Details about the wrongful criminal conviction of more than 900 postmasters because of a faulty computer system has been met with outrage and astonishment in Britain.

Not just because it happened, but because the injustices were allowed to continue for so long.

It was described in the House of Commons as a national scandal and the prime minister pledged to “get to the bottom of this” – but that was David Cameron in 2015.

However, those particular words were not spoken during the past week.

The scandal trundled without resolution for almost nine years despite a police investigation which begun in 2020 and a public inquiry which started in 2021.

It was only when ITV recently aired the drama series ‘Mr Bates vs The Post Office’, which horrified public opinion, that the government swung into action promising an “exoneration bill” to overturn wrongful convictions.

But doubts about the integrity of the Horizon computer system on which the prosecutions were based had been reported as far back as 2009 in the trade magazine Computer Weekly.

A BBC Panorama programme reported on the scandal in 2015 featuring interviews with postmasters and a whistleblower from Fujitsu, the computer company involved.

It revealed the defects in the computer system which were concealed by the Post Office.

However the Post Office was still vociferously denying that there was anything wrong with the system – their representatives threatened both the BBC and experts interviewed by Panorama with legal action.

The Post Office’s CEO Paula Vennells told a House of Commons committee in February 2015 that there was no evidence of miscarriages of justice.

And when the story aired by Panorama that August, it was not picked up by other media.

Ms Venells was given a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2019 Honours List.

Former CEO Paula Vennells handed back her CBE following public pressure

Fujitsu continued to be awarded lucrative government contracts worth a total of £4 billion (€4.7 billion) over the past decade.

They include a flood defence system, while the latest contract was signed only last month with the Education Authority of Northern Ireland.

Fujitsu was also given another £36 million (€42 million) last November to keep the Horizon system running with the Post Office until 2025.

Meanwhile it is calculated that over 4,000 postmasters were falsely accused of having funds missing from their accounts between 1999 and 2015.

The number wrongfully convicted in the courts is now put at 983. Only 95 have been overturned so far.

The saga is astonishing on a number of levels.

The Post Office had been allowed to carry out the vast majority of prosecutions privately without oversight.

Their approach was described as showing “not only incompetence, but malevolence” according to Post Office Minister Kevin Hollinrake.

A key part of the problem was the inadequate disclosure of evidence about the deficiencies in the computer system.

A Fujitsu whistleblower spoke about the issues in a BBC Panorama documentary in 2015

Individual postmasters had been wrongly told they were the only ones claiming technical problems.

The Post Office continued to deny there was any systemic problems even after forensic accountants it had hired warned in 2013 that the Horizon system could cause accounting errors.

But the lack of disclosure continued during court cases and even during the current public inquiry – the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry – which is currently holding public hearings.

One of Post Office’s own lawyers, Chris Jackson, admitted to the inquiry last Friday that “inaccurate and misleading” information had been given by the Post Office to the High Court in previous cases.

And that disclosure of documents to the inquiry itself had been “sub-optimal”.

Inquiry hearings have been repeatedly delayed by what the inquiry’s lead counsel Jason Beer KC has described as a “series of disclosure failings”.

The Chair of the Inquiry Wyn Williams has warned the Post Office of criminal sanction.

What many British people find shocking is that this the Post Office – one of the nation’s most trusted brands which is synonymous with local community life.

Former CEO Paula Vennells used to be an Anglican priest.

And the Post Office is wholly publicly owned unlike the Royal Mail which is separate and which was privatised.

The postmasters involved suffered wrongful imprisonment, bankruptcy, broken marriages and loss of their good name.

A total of 34 died before the scandal was dealt with, including four who committed suicide.

Now a compensation bill is due to exceed £500 million (€582 million) including upfront payments of £600,000 (€698,000) each to those postmasters who were wrongfully convicted in the courts.

The total number affected including those who had to pay their own money to balance their post office accounts is in excess of 4,000 people.

The problem is that according to Post Office Minister Kevin Hollinrake, there is no way of knowing how many of the 983 people convicted on the basis of the Horizon system are in fact totally innocent.

He told the House of Commons he could not say whether it was “90% or 80% or 70%”.

To assess each case would take years and mean further delays for those unjustly convicted.

Instead each person will be asked to sign a declaration of innocence before the conviction is overturned and they will then be entitled to compensation.

This is an unprecedented interference in the judicial process that has many legal experts concerned about the precedent it could set.

But it seems to be the only way of cutting through the mess that has been allowed to develop.

And problems remain – Northern Ireland and Scotland have different judicial systems and those cases will have to be dealt with separately.

There were also 53 appeals taken by individual postmasters that failed either because the conviction was upheld or because the appeal was not allowed or because the case was dropped.

The government has promised to look at these as well.

Many public figures are getting caught up in the controversy.

Past post office ministers in particular are being questioned about their handling of the affair including current Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey.

Former post office minister Ed Davy said he was lied to about the affair

Mr Davey said he was lied to by the post office.

Keir Starmer was also of the Crown Prosecution Service from 2008 and 2013.

He said there were four million cases during that time and the CPS handled only a handful of prosecutions which he was not involved in.

Some legal experts have blamed the underfunding of the courts as a contributory factor.

The book ‘The Secret Barrister’ has set out in alarming detail the current deficiencies in the British justice system resulting from years of funding cutbacks.

Legal experts such as retired Old Bailey judge Nicholas Cooke KC have said that, in its current state, the Crown Court system would not be able to cope with technical legal challenges concerning computer systems.

Ms Vennells had to hand back her CBE after a petition signed by 1.2 million people.

The government has promised that it will pursue Fujitsu to pay compensation if it is found liable.

There may be criminal prosecutions for those responsible for the scandal.

But it is remarkable that it was a television drama and not investigative journalism or court action or political campaigning that finally provoked a public reaction strong enough to empower the government to act.


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