A judge called for an inquiry into the running of post offices yesterday after a Manchester postmaster was freed from court despite admitting that he stole nearly £25,000 to keep his branch afloat.
Andrew Gilbertson, 38, took the money from Consignia, which owns the network, after a series of armed robberies and financial problems left his business with massive debts.
Mr Gilbertson, from Droylsden, Manchester, escaped jail when Judge Ensor ruled that the postmaster's agreement with the Post Office had left him in an "impossible" financial situation since he took over the branch in 1991.
He said Mr Gilbertson's crime would normally warrant an immediate jail term but he gave him a suspended six-month sentence because of the "exceptional" nature of his case. "You were caught up in circumstances which are frightening to contemplate and put in a totally impossible position," he said.
"Under a contract, you became self-employed and took over all the risks linked with running a business in a very difficult area.
"As a result you were driven to this dishonesty and I believe there should be an inquiry into how such contracts can be entered into," the judge said.
Mr Gilbertson had admitted stealing the cash to pay bills and staff wages over a four-year period from 1997. Manchester Crown Court was told that Mr Gilbertson had been employed as a counter clerk at the Higher Openshaw Post Office until 1991, when he took over the franchise.
Under the deal, he was given control of the branch but had to pass most of the takings on to the Post Office.
He soon faced financial difficulties that escalated because of seven armed robberies as well as thefts and break-ins, leaving him to pick up the bill for loss of business and the fitting of CCTV cameras. Mr Gilbertson, who has no previous convictions, said there were many other people who had faced the same difficulties.
All postmasters run branches as franchises and are therefore personally responsible for any losses.
A campaign group for postmasters said many have had to work without pay, take loans and remortgage their homes because of their contracts with the Post Office.
Mr Gilbertson said his contract put him in an impossible situation. "Following one of the armed robberies, we had to shut the following day and Consignia docked money from us. What happens to people who take on these contracts is that they are simply cut adrift and left to it," he said.
A spokeswoman for Consignia said franchises were offered to employees to make the service more efficient. "Buying into this kind of contract is a financial decision for the purchaser at the time. There are hundreds of these offices operating successfully around the country. Unfortunately, in any large network there will inevitably be some whose financial expectation has not been satisfied.
"We ask them to talk to us first if they are getting into trouble so we can offer them support," the spokeswoman said.
But Richard Sands, who heads a group which campaigns on behalf of postmasters, said Mr Gilbertson's case was not unusual. He said many people were in a "terrible" situation. "There is no end to the worry because you remain liable for the business debts until it can be sold on to someone else, but no one wants to buy them in the current climate," he said.
The spokeswoman for Consignia said although there had been instances of postmasters stealing from the company before, there was no evidence that it had become widespread because of the pressures of the franchise agreements.