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Scale of UK Post Office scandal exposed by inquiry testimony

A faulty computer system has led to the most widespread miscarriage of justice in the United Kingdom's modern history, with thousands of former postal contractors seeking compensation for wrongful accusations of theft and, for many, wrongful convictions.

(CN) — The extent of a sprawling scandal involving the British Post Office has begun to be publicly exposed this week, as an independent inquiry started to hear testimony from victims of the affair.

Between 2000 and 2015, the United Kingdom's Post Office sought more than 800 prosecutions against subpostmasters and mistresses – or SPMs, contractors responsible for running small branches of the Post Office – on charges of fraud, theft and criminal accounting. It secured 705 convictions in total.

However, in December 2020, six of the prosecuted SPMs had their convictions quashed by the Crown Court. Four months later, in April 2021, a further 39 convictions were quashed by the Court of Appeal. The British legal system now faces the prospect of all 705 guilty verdicts being found to be potentially baseless, a miscarriage of justice on an unprecedented scale.

The evidence used to secure the convictions was based solely on the financial records of the internal Horizon computer system used by the Post Office to record transactions. Large shortfalls of money were frequently highlighted by the system, with managers stumped by the discrepancies. Accused of theft by the Post Office, the contractors were often forced to plug the gap with thousands of pounds of their own money in order to avoid criminal proceedings. Those who couldn’t do so were prosecuted, with many advised by lawyers to plead guilty to criminal accounting to avoid the more serious charge of theft.

However, the 45 convictions were quashed on the basis that the computer system was faulty, and the discrepancies reported were false.

This week, the independent inquiry set up to examine the affair began to focus on the human impact of the wrongful accusations and convictions, revealing frequently tragic and traumatic testimony from victims of the scandal.

Amid tears, 69-year-old Baljit Sethi told the inquiry that he had contemplated suicide as a result of the impact of the accusations.

“It was a very successful post office, we never had any problems," Sethi said. "We had seven armed robberies, but we never let them take a penny.”

"I was the only post office in the country which was running all seven days [a week]."

Sethi told the investigators that he reported a fault with the computer system when he started noticing shortfalls, but the Post Office showed no interest and nobody came to help. His contract was subsequently terminated.

"People in our community believed we had been robbing from the Post Office,” he said. "It all had a bad impact on us psychologically, financially and reputation-wise."

Margery Williams, 55, pleaded guilty to fraud in 2012 to avoid a custodial sentence which would have separated her from her 10-year-old daughter. She testified that she had since developed diabetes and scarring alopecia and had become a recluse, while her daughter faced years of bullying.

"I don't trust anybody anymore. It's really difficult,” Williams said.

William Graham described how his conviction prevented him from finding further work, damaged his personal relationships and left him depressed.

“Even though I’ve been acquitted, it made me feel useless, because I couldn't explain where the losses came from. It made me doubt myself,” he said. “I doubted myself, I felt like my family doubted me.”

Lisa Brennan spoke about how the theft accusation led to the breakdown of her marriage and left her homeless, with her former colleagues instructed not to speak to her. She described the accusation as “the beginning of the end of my life”.

Another post officer manger, Jo Hamilton, testified that she had “lost the best years of her life” to the ordeal. “It’s horrible to be accused of dishonesty when you are not dishonest,” she said.

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Lawyer Jason Beer portrayed the testimony given to the inquiry as merely “the tip of a very large iceberg.”

“Lives were ruined, families were torn apart, families were made homeless and destitute,” he told investigators. “People who were important, respected and integral part of the local communities that they served were in some cases shunned.”

A number of those affected “have thought about taking their own lives and in some cases took their own lives,” Beer said.

He also highlighted how “a number of men and women sadly died before the state publicly recognized that they were wrongly convicted.”

Once the inquiry has completed its human impact testimony stage, it will move on to broader questions of whether the Post Office was aware of faults in the Horizon IT system and why contractors who complained about the system were not offered help, and were instead forced to repay shortfalls or be prosecuted.

The software, developed and overseen by Japanese company Fujitsi, was rolled out quickly and at great expense across the Post Office’s branches in 1999. Complaints about the system from post office managers were received almost immediately, with shortfalls quickly emerging and the first prosecutions taking place in 2000.

Many of the accused contractors have reported being told by the Post Office that theirs was an isolated case and that nobody else had faced difficulties with the computer system. However, such claims would have been made by the Post Office at the same time that it was prosecuting numerous contractors under precisely the same circumstances.

Alan Bates, the founder of the group Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, was among the first to report problems with the system back in 2000. His contract was terminated by the Post Office but he refused to back down over the issue, having identified various flaws in the software. By 2018, he was leading more than 500 fellow contractors into an eye-wateringly expensive High Court battle with the Post Office.

At the beginning of the case, presiding Judge Peter Fraser accused both sides of engaging in “extremely aggressive litigation tactics.” But Bates argues that his side was left with little choice after the Post Office, the police, government ministers and even the media refused to engage in the issue.

The Post Office regularly polls as one of the U.K.’s most trusted institutions. For many, the idea that it was engaged in some kind of conspiracy to bankrupt and imprison its own loyal staff was simply more farfetched than the possibility that SPMs were stealing from their workplaces.

The Post Office eventually settled with Bates and the other plaintiffs for 58 million pounds ($79 million) in 2019. However, with most of this figure covering hefty legal fees, the victims were left with limited compensation. Given the high number of individuals affected in total – with 2,300 people having applied for relief – the government is left to foot the bill for further compensation, and has set aside more than 1 billion pounds ($1.3 billion) of taxpayer money.

For many victims, however, compensation will not be enough.

In her testimony, Williams said of those responsible for the scandal: “I want them to feel the way I felt and the way I have struggled financially.”

“I just want somebody accountable because it's just gone on for so long and people are hiding,” she added.

Speaking to the BBC, former SPM Harjinder Butoy says he wants justice.

“I always say, I got three years, three months, but it feels like I got a 14-year jail sentence, because I had to clear my name," he said. “I want someone else to be charged and jailed like I was.”

In The Telegraph this week, Post Office CEO Nick Read wrote: “What happened was unacceptable. The inquiry should help get to the bottom of what went wrong and an opportunity to help draw a line for some people who have suffered for decades. I am determined that Post Office does all it can to help the inquiry achieve that.”

The inquiry’s hearings will continue over the coming weeks.

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