A British postal scandal ruined hundreds of lives. The government plans to try to right those wrongs

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak says he will introduce measures to reverse the convictions of more than 900 Post Office branch managers wrongly accused of theft or fraud because of a faulty computer system

Brian Melley
Thursday 11 January 2024 05:04 GMT

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said he will introduce measures to reverse the convictions of more than 900 Post Office branch managers wrongly accused of theft or fraud because of a faulty computer system in what is considered one of the gravest injustices in the nation's history.

The announcement Wednesday follows a TV docudrama on the wrongdoing that created a huge surge of public support for the former postmasters who have spent years trying to reclaim lives ruined by the scandal.

“This is one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our nation’s history," Sunak said. “People who worked hard to serve their communities had their lives and their reputations destroyed through absolutely no fault of their own. The victims must get justice and compensation.”

Lawmakers said they would provide compensation to those who had been convicted. Some also called for bringing those to justice who were responsible for the wrongdoing.

Some things to know about the scandal:


After the Post Office rolled out the Horizon IT system, developed by Japanese company Fujitsu, in 1999 to automate sales accounting, local Post Office managers began finding unexplained losses they were responsible to cover.

The state-owned Post Office maintained Horizon was reliable and accused branch managers of dishonesty. Between 2000 and 2014, some 900 postal workers were wrongly accused of theft, fraud and false accounting, with some convicted and imprisoned and others forced into bankruptcy.

In total, over 2,000 people were affected by the scandal. Some committed suicide or attempted it. Others said their marriages fell apart and reported becoming community pariahs.

A group of postal workers took legal action against the Post Office in 2016. Three years later the High Court in London ruled that Horizon contained a number of “bugs, errors and defects” and that the Post Office “knew there were serious issues about the reliability” of the system.

"Failures of investigation and disclosure were so egregious as to make the prosecution of any of the ‘Horizon cases’ an affront to the conscience of the court,” Justice Timothy Holroyde said.

To date, just 95 convictions have been overturned, Post Office minister Kevin Hollinrake said.


A government minister claimed this moment of reckoning has long been coming. But it was turbo-charged by a four-part TV docudrama that aired Jan. 1 and fueled public outrage that led to days of bruising headlines about the scandal and sparked a swift response by lawmakers.

The ITV show, “Mr. Bates vs the Post Office,” told the story of branch manager Alan Bates, played by Toby Jones, who has spent nearly two decades trying to expose the scandal and exonerate his peers.

Despite hundreds of news stories over the years about court hearings and an ongoing public inquiry, the show seen by millions rapidly galvanized support for victims of the injustice.

Police last week opened a fraud investigation into potential offenses of perjury and perverting the course of justice over investigations and prosecutions carried out by the Post Office.

More than a million people signed an online petition calling for former Post Office chief executive Paula Vennells to lose her Commander of the Order of the British Empire title she received in 2018. By the end of Tuesday, she said she would relinquish the honor.


The Post Office is state owned with independent franchise operators. Branch owners and employees typically lived in the communities where they operated and many became outcasts when accused of stealing.

Lisa Brennan, a former clerk at a post office in Huyton, near Liverpool, told the inquiry that after being falsely accused of stealing 3,000 pounds ($3,800) in 2003 her marriage fell apart, she lost her house and ended up homeless with a young daughter.

“It’s scandalous, it should never have happened,” she told the inquiry in 2022. “I wasn’t the only one but that’s what I was told: ‘It’s only you, you’re the only one.’”

Janine Powell, a former subpostmistress in Tiverton in Devon who was accused of stealing around 71,000 pounds ($90,000), said she felt broken after being sentenced to 18 months in prison after being convicted in 2008.

She had to leave her three children, aged 10 to 18 at the time, and that strained their relationship. She harmed herself, considered suicide and struggled to get a job after her release.

“It had a big impact. You have to declare obviously that you’ve got a criminal record," Powell said. “When you try to explain (to employers) it’s a ‘no’ straight away, so I couldn’t work.”


The government plans to set aside 1 billion pounds ($1.27 billion) to compensate the wrongly convicted and others whose lives were destroyed in the scandal.

To date, nearly 150 million pounds have been paid to more than 2,500 victims, Sunak said.

The legislation envisioned would quash convictions and award those who have been cleared at least 600,000 pounds ($763,000), the government said. They could receive more if they go through a process to assess their claim.

Those who were not convicted but lost money would be offered at least 75,000 pounds ($95,000).

The government said there is a chance some postal employees who did commit fraud or theft could end up being exonerated and receive compensation.

“The risk is that instead of unjust convictions, we shall end up with unjust acquittals and we just do not know how many,” Hollinrake said. “But we cannot make the provision of compensation subject to a detailed examination of guilt.”


Some members of Parliament called for bringing charges against those who had been aware of the software problems and allowed prosecutions to go forward.

“Will the government accelerate the investigations to convict those who are really guilty of causing this scandal by perverting the course of justice?” said David Davis, a Conservative member of the House of Commons.

Hollinrake said the ongoing public inquiry will identify the organizations and individuals responsible for the scandal.

Duncan Baker, a Conservative who had once run a postal branch in Norfolk, said he wanted to know how much money the Post Office pocketed.

“One question that has never been answered is just how much money was taken unlawfully from thousands of innocent men and women," Baker said. “The Post Office took that money, we have never known that figure."

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