The public inquiry into the Post Office Horizon scandal that ruined hundreds of lives, has begun this week with the first witness testimonies.

More than 700 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses were prosecuted for theft and false accounting between 2000 and 2014. Some went to prison, some went bankrupt and many re-mortgaged their homes to address the imbalances caused by the faulty Horizon IT system.

A total of 39 convictions were quashed last April at the Court of Appeal.

Last April Paula Vennells, who was in charge of the Post Office from 2012 to 2019, apologised and resigned her roles on the boards of the supermarket Morrisons and home furnishing store Dunelm. The Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the time, described the case as an “appalling injustice”.

Long-running battle

The gross miscarriage of justice was pursued for over a decade by the Post Office’s management team.

The case centred over the use of the Horizon accounting system from Fujitsu, which has been in place since 1999 and records transactions across Post Office branches.

Alleged mistakes with Horizon caused sub-postmasters to be wrongly accused of fraud, and many were told to pay back supposedly missing funds or face prosecution.

The problem became a political issue in 2009, when reports surfaced of sub-postmasters who had received heavy fines or jail terms for alleged false accounting, which they said resulted from problems with Horizon.

Thousands of sub-postmasters independently operate smaller post offices, and are obliged to make up shortfalls out of their own pockets.

In 2011, 85 sub-postmasters sought legal support in claims against the Post Office after being wrongly accused of taking money.

In later years this figure rose to 550 sub-postmasters suing the Post Office.

Unfortunately, the Post Office management team always argued that there is no evidence of systemic problems with Horizon, but set up the mediation scheme in 2013 after independent investigators found defects in the software.

In 2014 more than 140 MPs said they could no longer support the Post Office’s mediation scheme after numerous complaints about Horizon.

Miscarriage of justice

A total of 960 convictions linked to the scandal were reviewed, in what was dubbed the biggest miscarriage of justice in UK history.

Some of those convictions resulted in postmasters being jailed.

Then in December 2019 the Post Office agreed to pay almost £58 million as part of a settlement after legal action by sub-postmasters after they were wrongly accused of taking money.

But most of that money went on legal costs.

And to make matters worse, in June 2020 it was revealed that bosses at the Post Office had been told as far back as 2011 that Horizon could be to blame for missing money.

Despite that, it still pursued prosecutions against staff anyway, with hundreds of postmasters sacked, going bankrupt or wrongfully

In December 2020, more than 500 sub-postmasters won a civil court case against the Post Office, and the judge at the time said that under the leadership the actions of the Post Office had been “both cruel and incompetent”.

Public inquiry

The government launched a public inquiry into the prosecution of the former Post Office workers, which has now begun this week.

Sky News reported on the first witness at the inquiry, which is being held at the International Dispute Resolution Centre in central London.

“I cannot stress enough the importance of me understanding the scale and the nature of the harm which has been caused to so very many individuals,” the inquiry chairman Sir Wyn Williams was quoted as saying at the start of the proceedings.

It was “the worst miscarriage of justice in recent British legal history” according to Jason Beer QC, the counsel to the inquiry.

Witness statement

Sky News reported that the first witness to give evidence to the inquiry, was 69-year-old Baljit Sethi, who broke down in tears several times.

He used to run a post office near Romford in Essex for 22 years and had been targeted by armed robbers on numerous occasions.

Sethi said he stayed up until 11pm on the night that he first noticed a shortfall of £1,000 but could not work out what had happened.

“The following week it had shot up to £2,000. I rang the post office, I sent a fax. I said there seems to be a problem with the Horizon system, would somebody please come help us? Nobody turned up,” he was quoted as saying

Sethi was never charged with crimes, but had his contract terminated.

“We lost everything we ever had after 20-25 years and this was all thanks to the Post Office,” he reportedly said. “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?”

Sethi reportedly worked late night shifts as a security guard on minimum wage to help fund a good lifestyle for his children.

“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.”

The counsel to the inquiry also commented on the matter.

“Lives were ruined, families were torn apart, families were made homeless and destitute,” noted Beer QC. “Reputations were destroyed, not least because the crimes of which the men and women were convicted all involved acting dishonestly.”

“People who were important, respected and integral part of the local communities that they served were in some cases shunned,” said Beer QC. “A number of men and women sadly died before the state publicly recognised that they were wrongly convicted.”

The inquiry continues.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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