Government To Compensate Victims Of Post Office Horizon Fiasco

The government has promised to compensate postmasters who have had their Horizon-related convictions overturned.

The government announced on Thursday that the victims are to be offered an interim compensation payment of up to £100,000 each.

And the government said it will ensure affected individuals aren’t left out of pocket as the Post Office works with postmasters towards their final settlement “for the immense hardship postmasters have faced.”

Compensation for victims

The government said that the Post Office is contacting postmasters and will aim to make an offer for an interim payment within 28 days of receiving an application from those whose overturned convictions relied on Horizon evidence.

If and when further such convictions are quashed, those postmasters will also be eligible for the payments.

“The suffering and distress these postmasters and their families have gone through cannot be overstated,” said Postal Affairs Minister Paul Scully. “While nothing will make up for the years of pain they faced after this appalling injustice, I hope this initial step provides a measure of comfort.”

“The Post Office has started to turn a corner in terms of dealing with its past mistakes – and this government will support them in doing so wherever possible,” said Scully.

The Post Office will continue to work quickly towards final settlements to ensure these postmasters are fairly compensated for the suffering and distress they have gone through, the government added.

The government’s support comes in addition to the financial backing it is providing for the Historical Shortfall Scheme. This scheme was established by the Post Office to compensate postmasters who had to cover shortfalls in their branch’s accounts caused by the Horizon IT system, but were not prosecuted.

The government will continue to provide strong oversight of the Post Office’s ongoing work to deliver full compensation to postmasters.

The government said that any interim payments announced today do not prevent people from bringing civil claims through the courts.

Long-running battle

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.

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 imprisoned.

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”.

The Prime Minister Boris Johnston also waded into the “appalling injustice” of the case.

Former CEO

In April thirty nine sub-postmasters who were wrongly prosecuted by the Post Office had their criminal convictions overturned.

A week after that, Paula Vennells, who was in charge of the Post Office from 2012 to 2019, resigned her roles on the boards of the supermarket Morrisons and home furnishing store Dunelm.

Vennells also halted her duties as an ordained Church of England minister.

Vennell is facing calls to have her bonuses recovered and be stripped of her CBE title, which had been given for “services to the Post Office and to charity”.

It should be remembered that the problems with the Horizon system began before Vennell’s tenure as chief executive, but whilst she was in charge she insisted the system was “robust”, and defended the technology and her organisation’s actions to a committee of MPs.

As chief executive, Vennell also chose to fight lengthy and expensive legal battles against sub-postmasters seeking redress.

In May, the Postal Affairs Minister announced that government would put the independent inquiry into the Horizon dispute on a statutory footing.

The Inquiry will establish exactly what went wrong at the Post Office and ensure something like this cannot happen again.

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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