The latest from the Post Office Inquiry
Alice Gregory – 22 January 2024
Last week, Japanese technology company Fujitsu vowed to contribute to the compensation of hundreds of sub-postmasters who were wrongfully convicted as a result of faults in the Horizon IT system. This is the latest update from the Post Office Inquiry, which has received increased media attention following ITV’s recent dramatisation of the scandal. But while the issue did indeed stem from Fujitsu’s faulty software, the scandal runs deeper, illuminating several systemic issues within the Post Office and its legal operations.
But first, some context: Horizon was introduced by the Post Office in 1999 to move its paper receipts to an electronic database. Before long, the system was facing problems which made it look like money was going missing from Post Office shops. Since sub-postmasters were contractually required to take responsibility for mistakes, many tried to make up for these errors with their own money. Others faced criminal convictions of fraud or theft while some were even imprisoned. Between 1999 and 2015, 900 sub-postmasters were prosecuted based on information from Horizon, and 700 of these were private prosecutions carried out by the Post Office. The consequences have been devastating, with hundreds of people facing bankruptcy, extreme stress and divorce, and four people were even driven to suicide.
Out of hundreds of wrongful convictions, only 93 have been overturned. However, more than 4,000 people are reportedly eligible for compensation under three separate schemes introduced by the government. The Group Litigation Order Scheme will allow the 555 former postmasters who brought an initial group lawsuit in 2017 to claim an upfront payment of £75,000, though a large majority are predicted to reject this offer. However, this excludes those with criminal convictions, but they can claim a £600,000 settlement under the Overturned Convictions Scheme. People who do not fall under these categories but were still affected by the situation can apply for an individual assessment as part of the Horizon Shortfall Scheme.
Despite these payouts, no party has technically been held accountable for this miscarriage of justice. However, the Met Police is investigating claims of fraud, perjury and perverting the course of justice in relation to these prosecutions, following allegations that Post Office higher-ups knew about Horizon’s issues and turned a blind eye to them. But, on a more positive note, the inquiry has led to plans to reform the oversight of private prosecutions. For hundreds of years, the Post Office has investigated and prosecuted crimes against the post, but the scandal has highlighted the risk of such private prosecutions. Members of the Justice Select Committee stated that the Post Office did fail to disclose relevant material during its prosecutions, with experts noting that the organisation viewed itself as the victim in the cases it was prosecuting. So, the objectivity of the process has been called into question, with many demanding increased regulations of organisations who do have the right to prosecute.