Government Overturns Hundreds of Theft Convictions Due to Computer Error

By: Ben Campbell | Published: Jan 21, 2024

On behalf of the state-owned Post Office, the UK government is set to overturn nearly one thousand wrong convictions after it was revealed a glitch in their systems led to hundreds of postmasters being accused of false accounting and theft. 

A new law has been proposed that aims to overturn the vast majority of the 983 convictions that occurred for close to two decades, in a case now deemed Britain’s greatest-ever miscarriage of justice.

Faulty System Leads to False Convictions

According to reports, for nearly two decades, from 1999 to 2015, hundreds of self-employed post office franchisees, known as Postmasters, were sanctioned by the government as a system determined money was missing from their business accounts.

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A customer uses the counter service at the post office in the village of Lover, England

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However, after an investigation discovered that faulty accounting software was behind the unusual discrepancies, the government has been forced to apologize, change laws, and issue large compensations. 

Postmasters Convicted and Sent to Jail

Across the United Kingdom, 983 convictions were brought against Postmasters during the 16-year period, resulting in many filing for bankruptcy.

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A man dressed in an orange jumpsuit sits on a small metal chair in his jail cell

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Others were given jail terms, including one former Postmaster who was pregnant. Over 60 passed away before having their convictions reversed, including four who committed suicide. 

Forced Into Bankruptcy

Many Postmasters, such as Lee Castleton, were forced into bankruptcy after the Post Office brought a civil case against him in 2005. 

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A man wearing a blue suit jacket holds his head in distress after receiving bad news

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“The civil claim against me and my bankruptcy has destroyed my life and the lives of my family. At the time, I was treated like a thief in our community,” said Mr. Castleton during a public inquiry.

Prime Minister Breaks Silence

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak revealed last week that legislation would be presented to parliament aimed at reversing the convictions brought on by the faulty program.

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UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak talks to an audience at a PM Connect event at Accrington Stanley Football Club

Source: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

“This is one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our nation’s history,” he said.

Software Fault Known for Years

The British government has come under fire after allegations suggest the problem has been public knowledge for years, yet they allowed post office franchisees to suffer. 

Photo illustration of a person working on a new software program on their laptop

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After a television show aired this past month, public outcry finally led politicians to take action and reveal their plan to overturn the bulk of the convictions.

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Post Office Denied Claims for Years

Fujitsu, a Japanese software company, denied claims their Horizon program had any problems for years. 

A Post Office van parked outside the venue for the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry at Aldwych House

Source: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The state-owned British Post Office went after many of its franchisees during the 16-year period, some of whom were convicted without the use of local courts.  Fujitsu “has apologized for its role in their suffering,” a spokesman for the company said.

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Unfortunate Postmistress Convicted

Josephine Hamilton was one of many whom the Post Office suspended after she was falsely convicted of improper accounting. 

A woman stands beside her lawyer in court as the judge prepares to issue a conviction

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The British woman was forced to remortgage her house during the time in an attempt to pay back the money the computer software claimed was missing. “Because of my criminal record, I’ve ended up cleaning,” she said during a public inquiry in 2022.

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Hamilton and Others Join Forces

Hamilton and others joined forces a few years ago to fight against the convictions. In 2021, they were relieved to hear that The United Kingdom Court of Appeals planned to overturn nearly 40 of the convictions. 

A man and woman pictured talking with a lawyer for legal representation

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The group collectively called the entire situation an “affront to the public conscience.”

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Police Investigating Post Office

Over the past decade, postmasters have tirelessly worked to prove their innocence one by one. Now, the Metropolitan police are investigating the state-owned Post Office for potential fraud.

A Police officer stands in Parliament Square in London, England.

Source: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The Post Office continues to plead innocence, claiming it is “doing all we can to right the wrongs of the past.”

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Compensation Rises to Over $100 Million USD

According to the best estimate, the government has paid out over $188 million (USD) to around 3,500 citizens affected by Fujitsu’s faulty software.

Two people pictured as one hand over a cheque following a settlement

Source: Freepik

While the British government initially announced that Post Office managers would get up to £600,000 after their wrongful convictions, only 30 of a possible 93 have agreed to full and final settlements.”

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Former Post Office Chief Called Out

Paula Vennells worked as the Post office chief executive during the end of the software crisis from 2012 to 2019.

In this photo illustration, a phone displays an online petition to strip Paula Vennells of her CBE due to the Post Office scandal

Source: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

After an online petition garnered nearly one million signatures, she was pressured into returning her honorary title as Commander of the British Empire.

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