Will they exonerate the 700 Sub-Postmasters?

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The scandal that was recently brought into the spotlight due to the ITV drama, ‘Mr Bates VS the Post Office’ is causing a mass stir and a call for action.

The technological advancements brought to the Post Office in the form of an electronic system called, Horizon were the cause of many people facing prison or financial ruin. The system was put in place in 1999, created by a Japanese Company called Fujitsu and as early as 2001, bugs were detected.

In Dalmellington, a bug in the system created a £24,000 discrepancy for which the post office held the post office operator responsible. Between 1999 and 2015 there were more than 700 Sub-postmasters and Postmistresses that were prosecuted for false accounting and theft for which many faced prison sentences.

Despite the public inquiry for this beginning in February 2021, many are still fighting for their justice. Until now only 93 convictions have been overturned and, of them, just 30 people have agreed compensation settlements.

It was Paula Vennels who was the CEO of the Post Office between 2012-2019 and it was Ms Vennels who repeatedly denied there were any problems with the system.

The BBC reports that more than one million people have signed a petition for Ms Vennels to have her CBE stripped from her which was awarded in 2019 “for services to the Post Office and to charity.”

Paula Vennels has accepted her CBE being stripped from her and has offered it up, however, this falls to the King to officially declare.

What is being done for the Sub-Postmasters and Mistresses?

The postmasters during that time were dealing with faulty software and superiors who did not listen to their claims that Horizon was having issues.

The Metropolitan Police are now investigating the Post Office over potential fraud offences.

Some did not face a criminal conviction but rather were forced to pay the Post Office, many are suing and these cases have to be dealt with desperately.

The Government is trying to speed up the justice which those prosecuted and blamed deserve. The Guardian has noted that Rishi Sunak has announced a plan to pass a law that could quash the conviction completely. The idea of using legislation to allow those with convictions justice at a faster rate is said to be under “active consideration” by Justice Secretary, Alex Chalk.

It is looking promising that all those prosecuted, will be exonerated in the near future.

What are the options?

  • A one-off law to exonerate all, which we know Alex Chalk is considering. This could be difficult to do as the courts and the judges’ decisions are independent of politicians and Parliament. However, due to the sheer amount of people affected, this may be an exceptional option that may have to be done. It was pointed out by Dominic Grieve KC, the former Attorney General that “If you use Parliament in this way, it is in a sense a parliamentary interference in the judicial process of our country.”
  • Speeding up the existing appeals as all the cases plead the same cause so it should be easier to do more in one go. The CCRC was able to exonerate 39 people in one go. Critics of CCRC point out that it is too quick to reject pleas for help and even many of the victims want this option removed.

How are Fujitsu to blame?

The system, Horizon was brought to the Post Office to replace paper receipts with an electronic database and effectively reduce manual time and effort spent by the postmasters. During the inquiry in 2015, the Post Office told the House of Commons that,

“There is no functionality in Horizon for either a branch, Post Office or Fujitsu to edit, manipulate or remove transaction data once it had been recorded in a branch’s accounts.”

However, this turned out to be incorrect, as four years later during a high court case, the truth came out that Fujitsu staff could in fact access branch accounts and had “unrestricted and unaudited” access to those systems.

The company is expected to answer questions about the role it played in this scandal which is being described as the most widespread miscarriage of justice in British history.

With so many people affected by this and so many more sympathetic, there is an urgency to see justice. With this being an election year, no Party would want this hanging over their heads.

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