In this episode of the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast, Karl Flinders joins Caroline Donnelly, Clare McDonald and Brian McKenna to discuss the Post Office Horizon computer system that wrought havoc in the lives of subpostmasters and subpostmistresses.
Karl Flinders is the Computer Weekly journalist who has written around 200 stories on this story over many years, with great tenacity, and with strong exclusives within that body of work.
After some “Karl-in-lockdown” chat, the team goes on to pick the bones out of the over-arching story. In doing so, they are guided by four stories picked out by Karl – three of which are landmarks in the overall saga, and one of which is a retrospective piece that offers a good entry point into what is a complex tale.
- From November 2015: Post Office IT support email reveals known Horizon flaw
- From December 2019: Subpostmasters proved right on IT system failures as calls for full public inquiry mount
- From December 2020: History made as subpostmasters wrongly prosecuted in Horizon IT scandal have convictions quashed
- And from January 2021: IT scandal exposes legal rule that made it easy for Post Office to prosecute the innocent
Prompted by Clare, Karl first gives the background to how the story first came to be of interest to Computer Weekly. Rebecca Thomson was the first CW journalist to write extensively on the story, the first major piece of work being a special issue of Computer Weekly magazine, in May 2009.
Karl explains, at Caroline’s prompting, the role of the subpostmaster/subpostmistress and why it matters to the communities they serve. He also tells the team, and the listeners, about Alan Bates, a subpostmaster who is one of the heroes of the story, and who has spearheaded the fightback, founding the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) in 2009.
The first story Karl goes into features a smoking gun of an email. Since the installation of the Horizon financial system by Fujitsu (ICL as it then was) in 2000, many subpostmasters had experienced problems with it. This meant they were found liable for shortfalls in takings that were disputed between them and the Post Office. The latter consistently denied that the Horizon system could be at fault and prosecuted subpostmasters for alleged false accounting and fraud, getting some of them jailed.
(The Post Office has the legal power to prosecute individuals without recourse to the police or the Crown Prosecution Service).
But, in 2015, Computer Weekly worked with the Communications Workers Union in revealing a fault in Horizon that caused unexplained losses. This revelation, which emerged from an email from Atos, which was providing technical support for Horizon, was ultimately used as evidence in the High Court. And the flaw revealed in CW at that time came to have a name within the overall case, as Karl subsequently discovered – the “Dalmellington Bug”.
That year was a big one in the story, with scrutiny on the Post Office, and its executive leadership, coming from MPs in the House of Commons. That was also the year of a report by forensic accounting and consultancy firm Second Sight, commissioned by the Post Office then dismissed since its findings were not to the Post Office’s liking.
The second story Karl goes into, from December 2019, was the High Court victory, following group litigation by the postmasters against the Post Office – with the judge, Peter Fraser (The Honourable Mr Justice Fraser), describing the Post Office management as the 21st century equivalent of flat earthers. They were also described as akin to Victorian factory owners in their high-handed treatment of the subpostmasters.
Subpostmasters have been jailed for theft, false accounting and saddled with life-changing amounts of debt. And it took a long time for them to have their day in court and be vindicated. Some have now had their charges cleared, and there are more such to come.
Karl describes, at Caroline’s prompting, some of the toll it has taken on their lives, apropos the third story discussed in the episode, from December 2020, when six subpostmasters who were wrongly prosecuted for accounting shortfalls caused by computer errors had their convictions quashed at Southwark Crown Court.
“A lot of people were broken,” says Karl. “It’s astonishing they kept going.” We do know that there were around 900 prosecutions of subpostmasters based on Horizon data, so there is plenty of work for the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) to do, and it is doing it. There are around 47 cases to be heard in March of this year in the Court of Appeal. It is the biggest group of probable miscarriages of justice in UK legal history, according to the CCRC.
Are there any lessons, asks Caroline, that can be learned from the entire story, with regards to putting too much faith in machines and assuming computer systems are always right?
This question took the discussion on to Karl’s fourth story, which takes us back to 1999 (the same time period as the inception of Horizon) when the legal presumption that computers are always right was baked into law. A new rule was introduced at that time, following a Law Commission recommendation that courts presume that a computer system has operated correctly unless there is explicit evidence to the contrary.
To find such evidence requires access to specialist and expensive advice, well beyond the purse of most of the subpostmasters.
This proved fateful for the subpostmasters, since, as Karl puts it in his article: “The Post Office did not have to prove in court that the computer system was not at fault. Some subpostmasters served prison sentences, hundreds lost their livelihoods and there is at least one suicide linked to the scandal.”
He concludes, on the podcast: “Just think of how many people have been prosecuted due to computer evidence that has not been checked out.”
There could well be a bigger picture, then, beyond the Post Office.