Attempted suicide, exile abroad and prison: The stories behind the Post Office scandal

Victims of the scandal who lost their homes and spent time in prison have spoken out after ITV drama ‘Mr Bates vs. The Post Office’ recaptured the attention of the nation

Athena Stavrou
Tuesday 09 January 2024 11:26 GMT
Comments
Several people took their own lives and 60 of the victims have died before finding any justice
Several people took their own lives and 60 of the victims have died before finding any justice (PA)

Depression, prison time, moving country, and attempted suicide. These are just some of the tales told by the victims of the Post Office Horizon IT scandal.

Errors made by the Horizon software, which was made by tech firm Fujitsu and used by the Post Office, led to the wrongful conviction of more than 700 people over false accounting and theft between 1999 and 2015.

Speaking to The Independent, some of these former postmasters shared their “horrific” stories, including tales of attempted suicide, physical abuse and exile abroad. None of them has received full compensation.

A renewed focus on the scandal comes amid a new ITV drama, Mr Bates vs. The Post Office, which has re-sparked interest in the ongoing scandal.

Scotland Yard said on Friday night that officers were “investigating potential fraud offences arising out of these prosecutions”; for example “monies recovered from sub-postmasters as a result of prosecutions or civil actions”.

Scotland Yard is investigating potential fraud and Rishi Sunak has called for further assistance for victims of the scandal
Scotland Yard is investigating potential fraud and Rishi Sunak has called for further assistance for victims of the scandal (PA/EPA)

Prime minister Rishi Sunak also told the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg programme that ministers were looking “every which way we can” to help those embroiled in the scandal, including the option of exoneration. A petition calling for former Post Office boss Paula Vennells to lose her CBE has attracted more than a million signatures.

Several people took their own lives due to the stress and 60 of the victims have died before finding any justice at all, with accusations tearing people’s lives apart, and many losing their jobs and homes.

One of those people was Janet Skinner, who began working for the Post Office in 1994 and soon worked her way up to become a postmistress in Bransholme, Hull. Then Horizon was introduced.

Janet Skinner was put on suicide watch after she was wrongly jailed for false accounting
Janet Skinner was put on suicide watch after she was wrongly jailed for false accounting (Supplied)

Having never had previous issues with her work, Ms Skinner soon noticed that her totals never balanced once the software was put in place.

After calling the helpline, she was told any shortfall would be her responsibility to “make good” as per her contract. But in 2006 her employers came to do an official cash audit and found a shortfall of just under £60,000.

Ms Skinner, who was 35 at the time, was accused of stealing the money, had her keys taken from her, and was suspended.

“This sounds naive but when they came I was actually relieved,” she said. “I thought they were going to figure out what was happening and find what the problem was.”

But when she was told she would be tried in Hull Crown Court in 2007, the reality sank in.

She took a plea bargain and pleaded guilty to false accounting in the hopes of avoiding jail, but was sentenced to nine months in prison.

The 53-year-old told The Independent: “I remember standing in the dock and the judge saying I was untrustworthy and stealing from pensioners.

“I was a complete and utter mess. Standing there having someone say these things about me when I hadn’t done anything was the worst thing in the world.”

She was then sent to New Hall prison in Wakefield for six weeks, and was put on suicide watch.

Ms Skinner with her friend and fellow former Post Office employee Tracy Felstead, who also wrongly spent time in prison
Ms Skinner with her friend and fellow former Post Office employee Tracy Felstead, who also wrongly spent time in prison (Supplied)

After leaving prison, Ms Skinner lost her home and was forced to pay the Post Office compensation of £11,000.

It wasn’t until almost a decade later that Ms Skinner realised she was not alone and eventually had her conviction overturned in 2021. However, almost three years on, she is still yet to receive her full and final compensation.

Another victim, 57-year-old Sathyan Shiju, attempted suicide when he lost his home and businesses after being accused of stealing over £20,000 from his post office in Tolworth, southwest London.

Mr Shiju was a postmaster when a branch audit in 2006 showed the massive Horizon shortfall. The father, who also had another grocery store nearby, was interviewed under caution by post investigators and says he was immediately suspended and subsequently dismissed by the Post Office.

Sathyan Shiju is still fighting for justice after he was accused of stealing over £20,000 from the Post Office, sending him into a spiral of depression
Sathyan Shiju is still fighting for justice after he was accused of stealing over £20,000 from the Post Office, sending him into a spiral of depression (Supplied)

“It didn’t sink in until they took away the post office and then my nightmare started,” he told The Independent.

“No one would speak to me, not even my MP. There were some days I received ten instances of abuse. People threw things on me, spat on me and called me a P***.

“My businesses failed and my houses got repossessed. I used to be a really confident guy but this completely ruined me. I didn’t have anyone to talk to and get it off my chest so I tried to commit suicide.”

Mr Shiju also explained the impact of the accusations on his daughter: “I only have one daughter and she was the one who opened the door when I was about to [commit suicide].

“My wife and daughter took me back to India to be with my family and my daughter was sitting next to my bed every day and night because she was afraid I was going to do something.”

Eventually, Mr Shiju returned to the UK in 2015, but he says his wife’s family still refuse to speak to him and did not attend his daughter’s wedding, as they believe he is a thief.

In 2020 he was accepted into the Horizon Shortfall Scheme but says he has only been offered just over £12,000 in compensation and his case is continuing.

Chris Head was in 2006 celebrated as Britain’s youngest subpostmaster, at just 18
Chris Head was in 2006 celebrated as Britain’s youngest subpostmaster, at just 18 (Supplied)

When approached by The Independent, the Post Office said it couldn’t comment on individual cases.

Across the country in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Christopher Head, a former postmaster, also felt forced to leave the country after he lost his livelihood.

Once crowned the youngest sub-postmaster in Britain, in 2006 at the age of 18, Mr Head’s tenure came to an abrupt end when he was accused of theft and fraud by the Post Office in 2015.

After five months his case was dropped, but the organisation insisted he still paid back the £88,098 they claimed he had stolen.

“I knew then that it was really serious and it was a lot of money that I couldn’t repay,” he said. “They interviewed me and when they sat me down and read me all my rights it really hit home.”

Mr Head was left unable to find work after the accusation and felt his only option was to seek work abroad.

A civil case was opened against Mr Head but was put on hold after Alan Bates brought a case against the Post Office to the High Court. This gave Mr Head hope but was not enough to salvage his livelihood.

Mr Head has since campaigned for justice for himself and hundreds of other sub-postmasters who were wrongly accused of theft
Mr Head has since campaigned for justice for himself and hundreds of other sub-postmasters who were wrongly accused of theft (Supplied)

Mr Head, now 36, returned home in 2019 and he was among hundreds of sub-postmasters who finally won a High Court case against the Post Office, in a £58m settlement that year.

Despite still struggling to find employment, Mr Head says he was only offered 13 per cent of his claim and believes the Post Office has “no intention of restoring justice”.

A petition calling for the former Post Office chief executive Paula Vennells to lose her CBE has received more than 1.1 million signatures, with the number rising fast
A petition calling for the former Post Office chief executive Paula Vennells to lose her CBE has received more than 1.1 million signatures, with the number rising fast (The Independent)

Meanwhile, former counter clerk Tracy Felsted is evidence that even some of the earliest cases are yet to be fully resolved.

Ms Felstead was convicted of stealing more than £11,000 from the Post Office and jailed for six months when she was just 19.

She landed her job at Camberwell Green post office in south London when she left school in 1999. Returning from a family holiday in 2000, she was told there was a shortfall of £11,500 in her till.

After a gruelling trial at Kingston Crown Court in 2001, she was found guilty of theft and false accounting and sentenced to six months in prison.

“It was horrendous and I’ve never been so scared in my life,” the now 41-year-old said. “I tried to commit suicide twice during the trial and my family was destroyed. I remember having to leave a family friend’s wedding because I had to go into a psychiatric unit.

Tracy Felstead was just 19 when she was sent to prison for a crime she did not commit
Tracy Felstead was just 19 when she was sent to prison for a crime she did not commit (Supplied)

Ms Felstead finally had her conviction overturned in April 2021, but her three-month stay in prison continues to impact her life and she says she is yet to receive full and final compensation.

She said: “The day I got out felt surreal but it was also very isolating. I found it hard to have doors closed and to this day I don’t have a door in my kitchen or living room because I panic.

“I want to now close that door and live my life with my children and just live a happy life.”

In response to these stories, a Post Office spokesperson said: We fully share the aims of the current public inquiry, set up to establish what went wrong in the past and the accountability for it. We are acutely aware of the human cost of the scandal and are doing all we can to right the wrongs of the past, as far as that is possible.

“Both Post Office and government are committed to providing full, fair and final compensation for the people affected.

“To date, offers of compensation totalling more than £138m have been made to around 2,700 postmasters. Interim payments continue to be made in cases which have not yet been resolved.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in