What is the Post Office scandal? Victims' convictions to be quashed

The Post Office began installing Horizon accounting software in 1999 (PA Wire)
The Post Office began installing Horizon accounting software in 1999 (PA Wire)

The identities of the hundreds of sub-postmasters who were falsely convicted in the Post Office scandal will be cleared on March 13 with the introduction of a new law, the Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill.

Incorrectly convicted individuals will have the choice to accept a settlement of £600,000 in lieu of filing a formal claim.

By the end of July, the majority of victims in England and Wales should be cleared by the legislation, under the new scheme run by the Department for Business and Trade.

Additionally, sub-postmasters who covered the apparent losses from the Horizon system out of their own pockets but were not found guilty or involved in a lawsuit against the Post Office will receive "enhanced" financial compensation.According to the Government, they will be eligible for a set amount of £75,000 under the Horizon Shortfall Scheme.

Sub-postmasters who have already accepted a lower payout will have their amount increased. Alternatively, individuals may elect to have their claims evaluated as part of the standard scheme procedure, in which there is no cap.

The Government announced that those who have had their convictions overturned can apply “as soon as possible” for the new Horizon Convictions Redress Scheme.

In the early 2000s, hundreds of sub-postmasters and postmistresses were wrongly accused of fraud, theft and false accounting. People lost their homes and livelihoods as a result of the injustice, and four people are believed to have taken their own lives.

The timeline of events in the scandal has lasted more than two decades and still nobody from the Post Office or Fujitsu has been held accountable.

The case, considered the country’s biggest miscarriage of justice, was brought back into the public eye by the ITV drama, Mr Bates vs The Post Office. It prompted fresh calls for compensation for the sub-postmasters and demands to hold those involved accountable.

Here's the lowdown on the scandal.

What is the Post Office scandal?

Horizon was introduced into the Post Office network in January 1999. The system was used for transactions, accounting, and stocktaking and was created by the Japanese corporation Fujitsu.

As soon as the system detected shortages, some of which totalled several thousand pounds, sub-postmasters complained about faults after the software made it appear as though money was missing. Some sub-postmasters made (often futile) attempts to fill the hole with their own money, even remortgaging their homes.

Based on the data from the system, the Post Office prosecuted 736 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses between 2000 and 2014, or one per week on average.

Sir Ed Davey is also now facing a challenge in his Kingston and Surbiton constituency from local councillor and former postal worker Yvonne Tracey (Andrew Matthews / PA Wire)
Sir Ed Davey is also now facing a challenge in his Kingston and Surbiton constituency from local councillor and former postal worker Yvonne Tracey (Andrew Matthews / PA Wire)

As a result, following convictions for theft and false accounting, some were sent to prison; many others experienced financial collapse and have spoken of being shunned by their communities. Some have now passed away.

Campaigners have since won a legal struggle after 20 years, arguing that the computer system was broken, to have their cases re-examined.

Does the Post Office still use Horizon?

The Post Office’s website says Horizon is still being used.

“The current version of the system, introduced from 2017, was found in the group litigation to be robust, relative to comparable systems," it said. "But we are not complacent about that and are continuing to work, together with our postmasters, to make improvements.”

However, the website adds it will be moving away from Horizon to a new IT cloud-based system, which will be “more user friendly and easier to adapt for new products and services”.

The BBC reported that the Post Office had paid Fujitsu over £95 million to extend the Horizon contract until the end of 2025. The BBC said it was thought that replacing the system would take years and cost hundreds of millions.

How many people were wrongfully blamed in the Post Office scandal?

After a protracted string of legal lawsuits, the Post Office settled with 555 claimants in December 2019.

It acknowledged that it had "gotten things wrong in [its] dealings with a number of postmasters" in the past and consented to pay £58 million in compensation.

After legal bills were paid, the claimants received a portion of £12 million.

Following the High Court decision, more cases were submitted to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), an impartial agency that looks into possible injustices.

The convictions of a total of 72 former postmasters have already been overturned in court decisions. Additional cases are anticipated.

The Post Office has agreed to pay out compensation as soon as feasible to those whose convictions, supported by Horizon evidence, have been overturned.

Applications for interim compensation up to £100,000 are being accepted, with the Government covering the cost.

Final agreements will be reached through mediation or by filing lawsuits in civil courts.

What happens next?

People whose lives have been "callously torn apart" will benefit from the proposed Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill, according to Rishi Sunak.It will apply to convictions in England and Wales and is anticipated to take effect by the end of July.

Most victims are anticipated to be exonerated by the law.