Letters of the Law: Post Office Workers’ Convictions Quashed

May 6, 2021

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2 min read

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What's going on here?

The Court of Appeal has cleared the names of Post Office employees who were wrongly convicted of theft, fraud and other offences based on evidence from a faulty IT system.

What does this mean?

In 1999, the Post Office began using Horizon as a computer software system at all of its UK post offices. The software was used for accounting, stock-taking and the general management of the company’s finances. It soon became evident that the company was losing money. Between 2000 and 2014, 736 Post Office sub-postmasters were prosecuted for crimes including theft, fraud and false accounting, based on evidence from the Horizon software. Some went to prison for these alleged crimes. 

The Court of Appeal has overturned the convictions of 39 Post Office employees who were convicted for such crimes. This is because their convictions were based on evidence from the Horizon computer system, which had a number of bugs that caused accounting errors. Money was not being stolen by employees, the computer system was simply faulty. As such, 39 of the employees’ names have been cleared, with another 50 expected to be cleared soon.

What's the big picture effect?

This case exemplifies the drastic effects that flawed business practices can have on a company’s employees and on the company’s own reputation. In the Court of Appeal judgment, Lord Justice Holroyde drew attention to the fact that the Post Office and Fujitsu (the Horizon computer system’s owner) knew that the system was unreliable and went ahead with the prosecutions regardless. As a result, many Post Office employees went into debt, lost their houses, their jobs and their reputation within their communities. Three employees passed away before their names were cleared. 

Nevertheless, the Post Office is yet to be held accountable for its failings. In December 2019 a civil claim was brought against the Post Office by a group of 555 Post Office employees affected by the Horizon system’s faults. The Post Office settled the case, paying out £57.75 million, but did not admit liability for any wrongdoing. Last year the Government Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) launched an inquiry into the scandal, however, BEIS is the department that owns the Post Office and, as such, little good is expected to come of it. 

The convictions represent a failing on behalf of the Post Office and the UK justice system. The Post Office bullied and prosecuted its employees for faults that were entirely its own. The justice system then failed to guarantee them a fair trial, in what has been called “the UK’s most widespread miscarriage of justice”. 

Report written by Catrin Trefor

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