With hundreds more subpostmasters expected to come forward to apply to have their criminal convictions quashed, stories of the “invisible” victims of the Post Office Horizon IT scandal will emerge.
The Post Office last week contacted a further 540 former subpostmasters informing them that it might have wrongly prosecuted them, using unreliable computer evidence, increasing the potential magnitude of miscarriages of justice more than ten-fold.
Stories told by prosecuted subpostmasters are shocking and part of one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in British history, but are only part of a wider scandal that could have affected tens of thousands of people.
Thousands of subpostmasters have balanced their books by using their own money, making good account shortfalls that until recently, when a court ruled that the computer system they use was flawed, they thought were their own errors.
On Friday afternoon (7 May), the Post Office announced that it had written to 540 former subpostmasters it had prosecuted for financial crimes such as theft and false accounting, based on evidence from its Horizon computer system. It is also looking at a further 100 cases. These 640, combined with the 45 subpostmasters who have already had their criminal convictions overturned, is close to the total of 736 subpostmasters who were convicted based on Horizon evidence between 2000 and 2015.
This was not unexpected. Following a Court of Appeal judgment on 23 April, when 39 subpostmasters had their convictions overturned, Helen Pitcher, chair of the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), which reviews possible miscarriages of justice, told Computer Weekly it is possible that the remainder of the 736 cases could come forward. “If they do, this is going to be huge,” she added.
A Post Office spokesman said: “In addition to full cooperation with the CCRC’s review, the Post Office has made strenuous efforts to identify individuals who were historically convicted and an extensive post-conviction disclosure exercise is taking place to identify and disclose all material which might affect the safety of those convictions.”
There are many more victims of the scandal whose stories might never be told.
For many years, Computer Weekly, which first revealed the Horizon problems in 2009, has been contacted by subpostmasters who have experienced unexplained losses. These subpostmasters covered losses with their own money, many believing they had made an error. Whenever a subpostmaster contacted the Post Office for help and in many cases questioned the Horizon system, they were told they were the only one having a problem. This was untrue as many subpostmasters were having problems, but the Post Office did not investigate, so they had to repay the money.
The amount of money repaid by subpostmasters is huge. If you take the 555 Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) members alone, who took the Post Office to court over Horizon issues and won, millions of pounds have been paid by its members to the Post Office to cover shortfalls, which in reality did not exist.
According to former subpostmaster Alan Bates, who set up the JFSA in 2009 and led the group in court, the 555 subpostmasters have paid the Post Office a total of £8.5m to cover shortfalls, which were proved in court to be based on error-prone data from Horizon. This is based on information collated for the High Court group litigation against the Post Office. But this money was not included in the settlement agreed by the Post Office when it was last in court.
More than 500 of the 555 were not prosecuted by Post Office, but still had to pay back money, which ruined many them financially and contributed to some selling up.
It is difficult to calculate the number of people who were affected in this way, but in the aftermath of the Court of Appeal decision, more will come forward with their stories. There could be tens of thousands of people like this, affected by Horizon errors over the years that the system has been used. About 2400 subpostmasters and former subpostmasters have joined the Post Office’s compensation scheme, which it set up after losing in the High Court, but there are likely to be many more that have suffered losses due to Horizon errors.
A letter to the Daily Mail following the Court of Appeal judgment, from a J Young in Bristol, is an example, which read: “I was a subpostmistress who took on a village Post Office in 1988 until 2001. I spent many fraught hours trying to balance my books. I would use my own money to cover the shortfalls in the Post Office till, usually about £100 or £200 at a time. This had a detrimental effect on my health and I suffered two strokes. But as this happened years ago, I have no proof of the figures and would be unwilling to become involved with the Post Office again. I wonder how many others are in my position.”
Bates at the JFSA said he had lost count of the number of stories like this he had heard. “The prosecutions are just the tip of the iceberg,” he added.