More than 30 victims of the post office IT scandal have died without justice it was revealed as a public inquiry began yesterday into the wrongful convictions of hundreds of sub postmasters and mistresses.
Between 2000 and 2014, over 700 Post Office branch managers were accused of theft, fraud, and false accounting owing to faulty software. Some 72 former sub postmasters have had their names cleared so far in what has been described as ‘the most widespread miscarriage of justice in UK history’. According to the Daily Mail, for at least 33 victims the inquiry ‘has come too late’. ‘Post Office bosses admit that 14 have died since May 2020 when a scheme was opened to compensate the postmasters,’ the paper continued. ‘The deaths are in addition to four who are believed to have taken their own lives, and 15 more who were part of a separate High Court action, which left them with a fraction of what they were due, who later died.’
The inquiry heard that the Post Office knew that its accounting system, Horizon IT, was unreliable, despite using evidence from it to support accusations against employees. Jason Beer QC, counsel to the inquiry, said that the prosecutions were ‘founded upon an assertion that the computerised accounting system Horizon which was used in branch post offices was reliable when in fact it was not (…) What’s more, the publicly owned company responsible for bringing the prosecutions — Post Office Ltd — knew that it was not.’
Many of the convicted sub postmasters and mistresses were imprisoned, lost their homes, and suffered relationship breakdowns. ‘Lives were ruined, families torn apart, families were made homeless or destitute,’ said Beer. In his opening remarks, inquiry chair Sir Wyn Williams expressed thanks to the 50 to 60 witnesses expected to testify: ‘These hearings would not be taking place at all were it not for the witnesses who have agreed to give up their valuable time to publicly relive what must be very distressing memories and events.’
Baljit Sethi, who formerly managed two Post Office branches in Essex with his wife Anjana, was the first witness to give evidence on Monday. During his session, he told the inquiry of his two decade-long career using paper accounts, during which time there were never any issues.
After the introduction of Horizon IT Systems, the accounts for one branch showed a shortfall of £17,000. Mr Sethi said that he tried to raise the issue with the head office, but to no avail. ‘I knew there was something wrong with the system but no-one wanted to know that,’ he said. ‘We didn’t take a single penny from the Post Office our entire life.’ Mr Sethi was one of 2,500 postmasters who was not prosecuted, but asked to cover the deficit out of his own pocket. He was forced to enter into an insolvency arrangement after his contract with the Post Office was terminated in 2002.
The Post Office has said it is ‘sincerely sorry’ for the impact of the scandal, adding that the testimonies of those affected ‘must and will ensure all lessons are learned so that such events can never happen again.’ The inquiry is expected to run for the rest of the year.
It was reported that all victims of the Post Office’s IT scandall would receive compensation offers by the end of the year after that the Government had been ‘forced to fund the compensation bill as the Post Office’s sole shareholder’ with the total expected to run past £1billion.
By contrast, the Ministry of Justice has almost stopped funding compensation for the victims of miscarriage of justice. As was revealed by the Justice Gap last year, not a penny has been paid out in the last 12 months in compensation for the wrongly convicted under the statutory scheme set up for those wrongly convicted. The Coalition government restricted payouts with the introduction of its Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 under what is known as the section 133 now someone claiming compensation has to prove that they were innocent ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. Only a total of eight payouts have been made under the new arrangements which are presided over by the former high court judge Dame Linda Dobbs. The government last year re-appointed Dame Linda as Independent Assessor for Miscarriages of Justice for a second five-year term. Her role is to determine the level of compensation to be paid once the Ministry of Justice has decided that the eligibility criteria is met.