London’s Court of Appeal has overturned 39 people’s criminal convictions made after the rollout of a computerised accounting system at the British Post Office saw hundreds accused of thefts and false accounting they had not committed
The Post Office said they were “extremely sorry” to postmasters on Friday morning after the Court of Appeal ruled on 42 individuals’ convictions for theft and fraud. Thirty-nine of those had their convictions overturned and names cleared, but three had their convictions upheld, as it was found their convictions had not been made in error.
Friday’s ruling follows hundreds of other postmasters in the United Kingdom who have already received millions of pounds in compensation from the Post Office over accusations, court cases, and convictions stemming from the Fujitsu designed Horizon computer system. Rolled out across the Post Office network from 1999, the computers had serious issues for years and could wrongly show significant errors in accounting and stocktaking, leading to those managing Post Office branches being accused of theft.
As Britain’s BBC reports, in the first 14 years of the Horizon system being in use, the Post Office prosecuted 736 people based on its accounting information, on top of many others who were dismissed, had losses recovered from them, or who used their own money to try and plug gaps created by the system. Losses in the system were caused by “[computer] bugs, errors, and defects”.
Lord Justice Holroyde said at the Court that not only was the computer system to blame, but the Post Office was aware “there were serious issues about the reliability of Horizon” even while it was prosecuting the postmasters, but consistently insisted its new computer system was reliable to protect its own reputation.
The prosecution of the postmasters — often respectable people at the hearts of their communities — saw some go to prison and massive reputational damage to others. Claims of serious health and mental harm, including premature death, from the stress of being falsely prosecuted, and from being shunned by their communities, have been made.
The cost of paying compensation to the thousands of postmasters impacted by Horizon is so great, the UK government — which owns the Post Office — revealed in March that it would be using taxpayers’ money to make some of these payments, as the cost involved could bankrupt the Post Office outright were it to try and pay them unaided. The government’s statement said there had been 2,400 claims of Horizon computer compensation lodged by postmasters.