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Moment that mattered: The Post Office Horizon IT inquiry begins

Former subpostmasters celebrate outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London, following a court ruling clearing them of convictions for theft and false accounting, 23rd April 2021

Former subpostmasters celebrate outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London following a court ruling clearing them of convictions for theft and false accounting, 23rd April 2021. Photo: Tolga Akmen / AFP

On 14th February a public inquiry began into the largest miscarriage of justice in British legal history. Between 2000 and 2014 the Post Office prosecuted 736 subpostmasters after a flawed software system, Horizon, made it look like money was missing from their branches. Several subpostmasters – people employed to run Post Offices inside larger retail businesses – were sent to prison. Many faced financial ruin. At least four of the wrongly accused killed themselves. More than 20 years after the saga began, the victims are still fighting for compensation and justice.

For Jo Hamilton, who spoke to the inquiry in London on its opening day, the nightmare began in December 2003, two years after she took over the village shop and its small Post Office in South Warnborough, Hampshire. One day the Horizon software, developed by Japanese tech firm Fujitsu and introduced to the Post Office network from 1999, told her that she had a shortfall of over £2,000. “I rang the helpdesk, did what they told me to do, and the discrepancy doubled to £4,000,” she tells me over coffee in her garden. Her old business, now a cafe, is just around the corner. “You couldn’t open the till, you couldn’t trade at all, unless you agreed to the figures [on Horizon] so I agreed to them… Eventually the area manager came down and said he thought an error notice would be generated and it will sort itself out. Well, it didn’t sort itself out.”

The Post Office began deducting money from Hamilton’s wages for the amount it said she owed them, but the discrepancies on Horizon kept occurring and her financial hole grew bigger. When she was told she would lose her job if there were any further discrepancies she did what she believed she needed to do to keep the shop alive – she borrowed money from friends, remortgaged the house, and put the missing money in the till herself. “I was up to my neck in debt,” she says. “I was constantly taking [profits] from the shop to put in the Post Office and eventually I completely ran out of money.” The shortfalls on Horizon kept on coming.

One evening the Post Office called Hamilton and demanded she send them £25,000 she owed. Completely broke, she called the National Federation of Subpostmasters. “They said, ‘Well, go and find yourself a good criminal lawyer and we’ll arrange an audit’ – and two days later two Post Office investigators came to my house, dressed in black,” she says. “It was awful. They were looking around the house saying to me, ‘Where’s the money?’” The Post Office at Hamilton’s shop was closed down.

In June 2006, the Post Office – which used private prosecution powers, meaning neither the police nor the Crown Prosecution Service were involved – charged Hamilton with stealing over £36,000, which she denied. Before her trial they offered a plea bargain – plead guilty to 14 counts of false accounting, repay the money, and they would drop the theft charges. “I was advised that I was less likely to go to prison if I agreed to it,” she says. “And I would have said I was guilty of anything to get out of going to prison because that prospect absolutely terrified me.”

In February 2008 she went to court for her sentencing carrying a prison bag – she’d been told that even having pled guilty to the false accounting charges, a prison sentence was likely. The judge handed her a 12-month supervision order. “I remember going home from court that afternoon and straight back to work. I was in such a deep financial mess I just worked, worked, worked all the time,” she says.

As the owner of the only shop in the village, Hamilton was known by everyone in South Warnborough – and almost everyone believed that the warm, kind, caring woman they knew was not a thief. She remortgaged her home again to raise the first £30,000 she owed but was still £6,000 short. “So we had a bizarre village meeting where I told everyone that I couldn’t raise the money. I was in tears. Then a lovely lady, Pat, said ‘Maybe you could have an early Christmas present from the village.’” The people of South Warnborough had a whip-round and raised the money in two weeks. The feelgood story made the national press, which meant that Hamilton appeared on the radar of young Computer Weekly journalist Rebecca Thomson, who had started investigating a bizarre story about subpostmasters all over the UK being prosecuted for an almost identical ‘crime’. While a few publications such as Private Eye remained focused on the scandal over the years, the story largely flew under the radar of the British press.

Until Thomson got in touch, Hamilton had been led to believe that she was the only subpostmaster this had happened to. She now realised that she wasn’t alone – and she wasn’t crazy. Getting to know other victims was “like someone putting their arms around me and giving me a big hug,” she says. “Honestly, until then I’d been questioning my sanity.”

The cynic in me wonders if these people in high places will ever be held to account”

Hamilton became friends with Seema Misra, who borrowed thousands of pounds to save her business after Horizon began displaying discrepancies. Misra was pregnant with her second child when she was sent to prison in 2010. Another new friend, Jacqueline McDonald, was shamed in the national press after being found guilty of stealing nearly £100,000 and sentenced to 18 months in prison. “She’d never taken a penny,” says Hamilton, shaking her head, still struggling to make sense of it. In 2013 Hamilton was devastated to hear that Martin Griffiths, accused of stealing £60,000 from his Cheshire branch, had killed himself. His family said that being accused of theft had had an enormous impact on his mental health.

In 2009 the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance was formed – and the fightback began. But the wheels of justice move slowly. Over the years, as it became increasingly evident that the problem was with the software and not with a sudden outbreak of criminality among hundreds of shop owners, the Post Office continued to privately prosecute an average of one person a week, and it kept insisting that Horizon – which had cost over £1 billion to install – worked perfectly well.

As the various legal appeals slowly made their way through the courts, Hamilton couldn’t afford to keep the shop going, and with her criminal record many employment opportunities were closed to her. She took whatever work she could find – cleaning houses, dog-walking; the work she still does today. Her father and mother died in 2016 and 2017 respectively; they were in debt from supporting their daughter, who believes the stress from the ordeal contributed to their passing.

In 2019 a group of 555 former subpostmasters won a battle against the Post Office in the high court, which found that Horizon contained many bugs and errors. In April last year Hamilton, along with 38 others, had her conviction quashed. It was one of the best days of her life, she says, but she will always be sad that her parents weren’t alive to see it. To date, 72 former subpostmasters have had their convictions overturned by courts. Most of those with quashed convictions, including Hamilton, are entitled to £100,000 in interim compensation, funded by the government – the organisation’s only shareholder – because the Post Office doesn’t have the money.

The purpose of the new public inquiry, which is scheduled to run until the middle of next year, is to “give a clear account of the implementation and failings of the Horizon IT system” at the Post Office. More than 20 years after the problems started, there are many questions which need answering. What did Post Office management know about the faults in the system when it began its prosecutions? Why did it continue to prosecute victims after receiving repeated warnings that the software wasn’t reliable? What did Fujitsu know about the faults with its software? And what happened to the estimated £8.5 million that Hamilton and other subpostmasters fed into the system to try to cover the shortfalls? Nobody knows where the money went, and to date nobody at the Post Office or Fujitsu has been held accountable. Post Office CEO Nick Read has said that he is “extremely sorry” for the “historical failures” of the institution, which is committed to “righting the wrongs of the past”.

Twenty years of Hamilton’s life have been consumed by the scandal. She’s 65, her husband David is ten years older, and while she would love to see individuals at the Post Office held to account for their actions, she needs to move on. Her priority now is fair compensation; justice could take far longer. “I’ll keep on shouting about what happened, but the cynic in me wonders if these people in high places will ever be held to account,” she says.

She has plans to study for a law degree at the Open University. Fifteen years of exploring the quirks of the UK’s criminal justice system as a victim has made her crave a deeper understanding. But she will never understand why the Post Office did what it did. “They went on prosecuting people when they knew something wasn’t right,” she says. “It’s the cruelty of it [that gets me].”

We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #46 of Delayed Gratification

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