Post Office Horizon Scandal: Key Facts And Details, Explained

What is behind one of the UK's biggest miscarriages of justice?
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Alan Bates, who led the campaign to expose the Horizon IT scandal, on Tuesday accused the Post Office of “lying” over two decades.

But just what was the crisis - one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in British history - about. And why is it back in the news?

Here’s what you need to know about a faulty system which has ruined thousands of lives – and why everyone is talking about it.

What is the scandal about?

In 2000, the Post Office started to accuse sub-post offices around the country of false accounting, fraud and theft, based on data from its Horizon IT system, installed in 1999.

Horizon, developed by Japanese company Fujitsu, was used for accounting and stocktaking in the Post Office.

This pursuit of employees continued until 2015, even though serious accounting flaws were first discovered with Horizon IT’s software back in 2010.

During this 16-year period, approximately 3,500 branch owner-operators were accused of taking money from the Post Office.

More than 700 ended up being prosecuted by the Post Office and received criminal convictions, even though they maintained their innocence and blamed the faulty software throughout.

The whole incident has repeatedly been described as “the worst miscarriage of justice in recent British legal history”.

Hundreds of employees received criminal records, and had to do community service, wear electronic tags or serve jail time.

Some sub-postmasters had even been trying to top up any losses showing up Horizon’s system with their own money.

The Post Office can investigate and prosecute without the police’s help.

For years, it stood by its accusations, and tackled queries about its management or its IT system through legal means, maintaining that Horizon was “robust” and that its monetary losses were not due to the faults in the system.

The stress – and sometimes bankruptcy – brought on by the case left many victims struggling with illness. Families broke down and people were cast out of their communities.

There have been at least four suicides linked to the scandal.

Dozens of branches took part in the pilot Horizon scheme in the 1990s, so there is a chance more victims could come forward.

Former subpostmasters outside the the Royal Courts of Justice, London, to challenge their convictions in 2021.
Former subpostmasters outside the the Royal Courts of Justice, London, to challenge their convictions in 2021.
Stefan Rousseau - PA Images via Getty Images

When was the scandal uncovered?

The attitude towards victims started to shift in 2019, when some Post Office operators won a high court case over their wrongful convictions – the blame was passed onto the Horizon IT system instead.

The High Court ruled that the system had “bugs, errors and defects” and there was a “material risk” the losses were caused by shortfalls in the system instead.

The ruling was upheld in a 2021 appeal, too, which meant those victims were entitled to compensation.

The Post Office also said it would compensate those who had criminal convictions were overturned, as well as the 2,500 people who weren’t prosecuted but had to repay money after Horizon reported a shortfall in cash.

The Post Office set up a Historical Shortfall scheme, too, to compensate anyone who didn’t serve jail time – although the sub-postmasters who exposed the scandal are excluded from that scheme.

In 2022, the government made a £686 million grant available to the Post Office, on top of previous awards, to help cover the costs over the ongoing case.

As of December 2023, it had paid out around £138 million to around 2,700 victims across three compensation schemes.

However, – only 142 appeal cases for convictions have actually been looked at.

Just 93 convictions have been overturned and 54 have been upheld, withdrawn, or refused permission to appeal.

And, there’s only been 21 “full and final” settlements for those 500 trailblazers who took the Post Office to court back in 2019.

Some people think the whole process is still much too slow, especially as some victims died before it was their turn to get compensation.

Meanwhile, Post Office bosses have still received generous bonuses (partially for the way they handled this scandal) and some tax has been charged on the compensation.

No Post Office staff have yet been punished and the company is still using Horizon.

Why is everyone talking about this now?

Although the probe is yet to conclude, the scandal has become a mainstream news item once again after the release of an ITV drama called Mr Bates vs The Post Office, which looks into the saga.

The Met Police is investigating two former Fujitsu experts, witnesses in the trials, for perjury and perverting the course of justice, although no arrests have been made.

The criminal probe was announced after 50 new potential victims came forward after the ITV drama aired this week.

What does Ed Davey have to do with it?

The current Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey was the Post office minister from 2010 to 2012 under David Cameron (during the Tory-Lib Dem coalition).

He’s therefore come under fire for not doing more when flaws with the system first came to light.

A Lib Dem spokesperson told The Times that Davey “completely understands” those who are angry, and he “wishes he could have done more to help them”.

“Ed deeply regrets not realising that the Post Office was lying to him and other ministers on an industrial scale,” the spokesperson said.

Who else is under fire?

Almost a million people have now signed a petition asking for the former Post Office boss Paula Vennells to give back her CBE, received in 2019.

This is a decision to be made by the Honors Forfeiture Committee, which does not necessarily publicise the conclusions it comes to.

But, the prime minister’s spokesperson said on Monday that the PM would “strongly support” any action taken by the committee to remove her CBE.

What does the government say?

Last September, the government said every branch owner-operator who had an overturned wrongful conviction would receive £600,000 in compensation.

PM Rishi Sunak also told the BBC on Sunday that he was looking to “get the money to people as quickly as possible”.

He said: “This has been an appalling miscarriage of justice, an appalling treatment of all the people affected, and it’s right that they get the redress that they deserve.”

Sunak added that the justice secretary could be looking to strip the Post Office of its private prosecution powers.

Ministers are reportedly looking into quashing all convictions and if the Post Office should be removed of the power to challenge appeals, so the Crown Prosecution Service would take over, according to The Sunday Times.

Justice secretary Alex Chalk and post office minister Kevin Hollinrake will meet today to look at speeding up compensation claims.

Fujitsu’s relationship with government bodies may now be under scrutiny, too, according to reports.


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