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May 19, 2024

Post Office Scandal Sees Over 900 Wrongful Convictions Overturned

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Jan 11, 2024

The UK Post Office scandal, in which hundreds of postmasters were falsely accused of theft, fraud and false accounting over the course of nearly two decades, is widely considered the largest miscarriage of justice in the country’s history. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has announced plans for new legislation to overturn more than 900 wrongful convictions. Many of those convicted lost their livelihoods, homes and reputations due to the faulty accounting software used by the Post Office from 1999 until relatively recently.

Horizon Scandal Spans 15 Years

The scandal has its origins in the Post Office’s introduction of a new computerized accounting system called Horizon in 1999. Almost immediately, technical issues with the system led to accounting shortfalls at local branches. Over the next 15 years, hundreds of postmasters – who were functionally in charge of their local branches – were accused of stealing funds when unexplained deficits showed up on Horizon’s books.

Table summarizing key events in Post Office Horizon scandal:

Year Key Event
1999 Horizon system rolled out at Post Office branches
2000-2014 Hundreds of postmasters prosecuted based on Horizon data
2009 Initial prosecuted postmasters begin appeal campaign
2015 Independent investigation into Horizon system launched
2019 High Court rules Horizon had ‘bugs, errors and defects’
2021 Court of Appeal overturns many historic convictions
2023 Further Horizon prosecutions referred to Court of Appeal
2024 Government announces new legislation to overturn convictions

Despite the accused postmasters’ protestations that they were innocent – and that issues with Horizon itself accounted for missing funds – the Post Office relied heavily on the Horizon data to prosecute staff for theft and false accounting. Between 2000 and 2014, over 900 postmasters and assistants were prosecuted – many forced into pleading guilty in the face of seemingly irrefutable computer evidence. Hundreds lost their jobs and livelihoods, with some sentenced to several years in prison.

A Decade-Long Fight For Justice

As early as 2009, some of the convicted staff began campaigning to clear their names. Key figures in bringing the scandal to light include former postmasters Noel Thomas, Janet Skinner, Seema Misra and Tracy Felstead. But despite their pleas, it was not until 2015 that the Post Office launched an independent investigation into the Horizon system.

In a stunning vindication for the accused postmasters, this investigation found the Horizon system was riddled with technical issues that could cause unexplained losses on local branches’ books. Software bugs had the potential to impact thousands of accounts simultaneously – undermining the Post Office’s claims that losses were due to individual theft or fraud.

In an initial High Court case brought by over 500 former staff, Horizon’s significant flaws were officially recognized in a 2019 ruling. The judgement slammed the Post Office’s “institutional obstinacy” and its “barrier of denial” in refusing to properly investigate Horizon’s problems despite mounting evidence.

A 2021 appeal hearing overturned many of the scandalous convictions – finally confirming Horizon faults as the true cause of unexplained losses in branch accounts. But up to 100 further potential miscarriage of justice cases were still left in limbo.

New Law To Overturn Remaining Convictions

On January 10th 2024, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced plans to pass new legislation specifically addressing the outstanding Horizon prosecutions. The proposed law will empower a special commission to swiftly review and overturn over 900 wrongful convictions without the need for further court appeals. Sunak apologized while announcing the plans, saying innocent people had faced “terrible injustices”.

For the hundreds of former staff still suffering – both financially and emotionally – after years of being blamed for crimes they did not commit, the announcement has been overdue and underwhelming. Key Horizon justice campaigner and former postmaster Noel Thomas said:

“Sunak talks about getting it right regarding the scandal, [but] this is something he should have addressed and sent a pathway of resolution for all those still suffering back in November 2022…For those still suffering who have become ill or still find themselves in dire straits, this lengthy process still does not seem to have an end.”

Compensation Remains Contentious

Alongside quashing convictions, the question of fairly compensating all those impacted has remained a thorny issue. By the start of 2024, over £800 million had been paid out in civil damages settlements and mediation schemes. But campaigners have argued this continues to fall short – particularly for those most harshly prosecuted and imprisoned.

Former postmistress Tracy Felstead, jailed for six months in 2002 when she was pregnant based on false Horizon data, said after the conviction announcement:

“They took away my good name and business. They made me feel like a criminal. I was thrown in a prison cell…No amount of compensation can give me back nearly half a year in jail when I was carrying my baby.”

And a recent £42 million settlement between the Post Office and the government – covering the publicly owned company’s liabilities in the scandal – has also sparked outrage. Alan Bates, key litigant and founder of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, called it “misconceived”, saying:

“Post Office directors and civil servants are getting away scot-free…[while] those who suffered remain uncompensated.”

Bates renewed calls for a comprehensive public inquiry into the institutional failures that allowed Horizon miscarriages to continue for so long. While Scotland Yard also recently announced a second criminal investigation into senior leadership over the prosecutions, there are concerns this probe will continue shifting blame onto “rogue elements” rather than political leaders and civil service decision-makers.

For Prime Minister Sunak, meaningfully resolving injustice over the Horizon scandal threatens to entangle his government in its messy legacy for months or even years to come. But the human cost of inaction is far more tragic – as the Grafham family tragically experienced. Former postmaster Martin Grafham took his own life in 2001 after being falsely suspected over Horizon “losses” he could not account for nor make up from his own funds. For the hundreds like Martin who had their worlds turned upside down over a computer error, only full accountability, compensation and closure can help make amends.

What Comes Next In The Post Office Scandal?

While plans to overturn wrongful prosecutions have been welcomed, the Horizon scandal still needs full resolution and airing of responsibility up and down the hierarchy before its painful chapter can truly close. For all Sunak’s current talk of “justice” over Horizon, meaningful progress will require much more action across political, legal and public realms even as headlines fade.

Court of Appeal Rulings Still Pending

Firstly, the Court of Appeal is still expected to rule shortly on overturning a further 100 potentially wrongful prosecutions from the early 2000’s relating directly to Horizon discrepancies labelled as “theft”. If allowed, these last quashed convictions will hopefully represent the final direct legal finding on Horizon’s role in baselessly ruining postmaster’s lives through unjust criminal charges.

Public Inquiry Battle Looms

Secondly, the year ahead could see intensifying tussles over launching a full statutory inquiry. Alan Bates’ Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance will likely lead calls for an exhaustive Leveson-style investigation into both civil service and government handling of the prosecutions. But within Whitehall, there remains reluctance and denial over institutional accountability at senior levels. Even confirming the exact number of wrongful convictions has become a battleground issue. Unless confronted, ingrained defensiveness over Horizon risks fuelling already deep mistrust in establishments that turned a blind eye for too long.

Further Probes & Private Settlements

Thirdly, in parallel to public inquiry pressure, both parliamentary select committees and Scotland Yard probes may still dredge up revelations over Horizon decision-making chains in 2024. Though the direction and integrity of these investigations remains in doubt, sustained scrutiny could yet spur further damning disclosures even as public attention fades. And rumored private direction settlements between former Post Office directors and impacted postmasters may transpire out of the spotlight.

For victims, the only acceptable end goal is comprehensive justice and closure after immeasurable damage was enabled to cascade for over a decade unchecked. But vested interests and institutional reflexes to

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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