The Post Office Scandal: Everything You Need To Know About The Horizon IT Saga

An inquiry has heard how hundreds of lives were "ruined" and families were "torn apart” by an appalling miscarriage of justice.
Noel Thomas (centre) with son Edwin and daughter Sian, arrives at the International Dispute Resolution Centre in London for the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry.
Noel Thomas (centre) with son Edwin and daughter Sian, arrives at the International Dispute Resolution Centre in London for the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry.
Stefan Rousseau - PA Images via Getty Images

Hundreds of people running Post Offices were wrongly prosecuted in “the worst miscarriage of justice in recent British legal history”, a public inquiry heard on Monday.

The Post Office scandal ruined lives and tore apart families all because of a fault in the IT system.

Between 2000 and 2014, more than 700 sub-postmasters were wrongly accused of theft, fraud and false accounting due to the flaw in the Horizon accounting software. Some sub-postmasters have since died, “having gone to their graves” with convictions against their name.

In total, some 3,500 postmasters were wrongly accused of taking money from their businesses.

Now a public inquiry, expected to run for a year, will look at who knew what and why staff were left to take the blame. Former Post Office workers will give evidence as part of the probe.

Here, HuffPost UK talks you through the scandal that victims say made them contemplate suicide and which politicians have described as a “stain on our country”.

What Is The Scandal All About?

More than 700 Post Office branch managers were given criminal convictions when faulty accounting software made it look as though money was missing from their branches.

Some were sent to prison for false accounting and theft, many were bankrupted, shunned by their communities, suffered family breakdown and, in some cases, died from suicide.

After 20 years of campaigning, victims finally won a legal battle to have their cases reconsidered.

What Was Horizon?

Hundreds of people were wrongly accused of stealing money from the Post Office simply because of errors in a new computer system called “Horizon”.

The system was introduced into the Post Office network from 1999 and was developed by Japanese company Fujitsu.

It was used for accounting and stocktaking, but sub-postmasters soon raised discrepancies in the system that was producing shortfalls.

The Post Office maintained that Horizon was “robust” and that none of the losses in branch accounts were due to problems in the system.

Some sub-postmasters even tried to plug gaps with their own money in an attempt to correct the error.

How Were The Victims Affected?

One sub-postmaster who was falsely accused of theft, fraud and false accounting told an inquiry he “contemplated suicide” after being left with a bill of £17,000 due to the defective system.

Baljit Sethi, 69, and his wife Anjana, 67, who have three children, told the inquiry they “lost everything”.

Sethi broke down in tears as he said: “I knew there was something wrong with the system but no-one wanted to know that.”

He added: “I was down and out, I contemplated suicide, but I thought no, that’s the easy way out, what about my family and my children?”

Former postmaster Noel Thomas, 74, was jailed for nine months in November 2006 after pleading guilty to one count of false accounting, on the basis that he accepted there was a shortfall of £48,450 which he was contractually obliged to make good, but did not know how it had come about.

He told the inquiry of his “hell” behind bars, including the “indignity” of showering in front of a prison warden and only being allowed out of his cell for food.

Thomas was in tears as he said: “I felt awful because I didn’t expect it, I’d never been a criminal in my life.”

Josephine Hamilton was given a one-year supervision order in 2008 after being wrongly convicted of false accounting

She was forced to remortgage her house and borrow money from friends and told the inquiry: “I’m so angry. I’m so angry about the group that they’re [Post Office] refusing to compensate.”

Jason Beer QC, counsel to the inquiry, said the ordeal of those affected could be concluded as “the worst miscarriage of justice in recent British legal history”.

What Did The Post Office Do?

In December 2019 a High Court judge ruled that Horizon’s system contained a number of “bugs, errors and defects” and there was a “material risk” that shortfalls in Post Office branch accounts were caused by the system.

The Post Office also agreed to settle with 555 claimants, accepting it had previously “got things wrong” and agreed to pay £58m in damages. But the claimants only received a share of £12m after legal fees were paid.

What About Those Wrongly Convicted?

Some 706 prosecutions are believed to have been based on evidence from the faulty computer system, according to the FT. Currently, 72 postmasters have had their criminal convictions overturned with other appeals pending.

What Next For The Victims?

The government has made a £686m grant to the Post Office on top of previous awards to help cover the costs of the scandal.

The Post Office will compensate those whose criminal convictions were overturned, as well as 2,500 who were not prosecuted but had to repay money over incorrect deficits.

The Post Office set up an Historical Shortfall Scheme to compensate those who did not serve jail time.

However, the 555 sub-postmasters who exposed the scandal in a successful group action in the High Court are excluded from the scheme and face a further battle for a better deal.

What Are The Politicians Saying?

Prime minister Boris Johnson has previously vowed that: “Lessons should and will be learnt to ensure this never happens again.”

Senior Conservative MP David Davis said: “This scandal stains our country. 33 people died without justice after being wrongly accused of theft.

“Those responsible at the Post Office must be held to account and this gross miscarriage of justice must be corrected through full and proper compensation.”

Fellow Tory MP Richard Holden added: “This is an absolute scandal. I have a local postmaster who died and whose elderly widow wife will never recover from what happened to them. These wrongs must be righted.”


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