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Post Office scandal: What is it and what has happened?

Here’s what you need to know about the postmaster scandal as 39 former managers have their convictions quashed
Post Office scandal has seen some have their convictions overturned. Image credit: Sludge G / Flickr

Post Office managers falsely convicted of offences such as theft, fraud and false accounting have had their convictions overturned after spending years attempting to clear their names. 

Hundreds of former sub-postmasters were prosecuted and many sent to prison in what has been described as one of the UK’s most scandalous miscarriages of justice. 

Here’s what you need to know.

What is the postmaster scandal? 

An IT failure linked to the Post Office’s use of a new computer system meant hundreds of sub-postmasters were convicted of serious offences between 2000 and 2014 – with some going to prison. 

Campaign group Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA), which was formed in 2009 to fight for justice, claimed workers across the country “suffered atrociously at the corporate hands of the Post Office”. 

“Over the years the Post Office aggressively held a defensive position that there was nothing wrong with Horizon and that the problems experienced by sub-postmasters were mainly due to their incompetence or were simply theft,” the group’s website reads.

When did the postmaster scandal happen?

The Horizon computer system was introduced in 1999. 

JFSA said sub-postmasters experienced problems “from the day of the computer system first being installed”.

The Post Office spent years maintaining there was nothing wrong with the technology, however, and went after staff when the sums didn’t add up, filing charges of false accounting and theft.

Campaigners believe that as many as 900 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses may have been falsely prosecuted and convicted between 2000 and 2014.

As well as some people going to prison, others were left bankrupt after the Post Office pursued claims which sometimes totalled tens of thousands of pounds. Others were shunned by their local communities.

What has happened now? 

Judges at the Court of Appeal at the Royal Courts of Justice in London quashed the convictions of 39 former postmasters.

Lord Justice Holroyde said the Post Office “knew there were serious issues about the reliability of Horizon” and had a “clear duty to investigate” the system’s defects.

“The failures of investigation and disclosure were in our judgment so egregious as to make the prosecution of any of the ‘Horizon cases’ an affront to the conscience of the court,” he wrote in his verdict.

“By representing Horizon as reliable, and refusing to countenance any suggestion to the contrary, POL [Post Office Limited] effectively sought to reverse the burden of proof: it treated what was no more than a shortfall shown by an unreliable accounting system as an incontrovertible loss, and proceeded as if it were for the accused to prove that no such loss had occurred.

“Denied any disclosure of material capable of undermining the prosecution case, defendants were inevitably unable to discharge that improper burden. 

“As each prosecution proceeded to its successful conclusion the asserted reliability of Horizon was, on the face of it, reinforced.

“Defendants were prosecuted, convicted and sentenced on the basis that the Horizon data must be correct, and cash must therefore be missing, when in fact there could be no confidence as to that foundation.”

What has the reaction been to the judgement? 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he welcomed the Court’s decision, saying “lessons should and will be learnt to ensure this never happens again”.

Reverend Richard Coles wished the postmasters the best of luck. He later tweeted his delight when the news broke.

“I think the case for a full public inquiry into the Post Office scandal is now overwhelming,” Coles added.

“We need to establish how it happened, and when that’s clear, those responsible must be held to account, even if that path leads through the boardroom to more exalted corridors of power.”

Tottenham MP and Big Issue ambassador David Lammy also called for a full inquiry. 

Controversial TV show host Piers Morgan said the Postmaster scandal was an “absolute disgrace”, adding he was “delighted” for the victims and said “heads must roll” at the Post office. 

TV Judge Robert Rinder said the rule came “too late” for those who didn’t see their names cleared and lost everything 

Former chief prosecutor Nazir Afzal added: “Delighted at [the] quashing of convictions of those who suffered at the hands of Post Office Horizon IT disaster and a justice system that failed them.

“Now for accountability and compensation.” 

What happens next? 

The government announced an inquiry into the scandal in June 2020. 

“I can confirm that the Government is committed to establishing an independent review to consider whether the Post Office has learned the necessary lessons, and to provide an independent and external assessment of its work to rebuild its relationship with its postmasters,” said business minister Paul Scully. 

But JFSA has demanded its terms of reference be widened and called it a “whitewash review”. 

“So much more has come to light that nothing less than a Statutory Inquiry will be acceptable to the victims of the Post Office,” the campaigners said in March 2021. 

“We aim to halt the current [business department] Whitewash Review and replace it with a statutory inquiry with redefined terms of reference and with the power to subpoena witnesses and take evidence under oath.”