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Post Office scandal victims to tell their stories in public

Victims of the Post Office Horizon scandal are due to tell their devastating stories to the statutory inquiry

The statutory public inquiry into the Post Office Horizon scandal will see victims tell their stories next week, as the human impact hearings are held in public.

This is a critical stage in the inquiry as it gives former subpostmasters the opportunity to describe how the government-owned Post Office wrecked their lives when it wrongly blamed them for unexplained accounting shortfalls.

The first set of victim hearings will take place in public on Monday 14 February to Friday 25 February in London, with events broadcast on the inquiry’s Youtube channel. In the week beginning February 28 evidence will be taken from witnesses in Cardiff followed by  witnesses in Leeds from 07 March.

The stories of many have been heard before, but the setting of a statutory public inquiry will increase public understanding of the suffering experienced.

Lives were ruined as people were made bankrupt, received criminal records, sent to prison, and suffered ill health as a result. There are also suicides linked to the scandal.

In 2009, a Computer Weekly investigation revealed that subpostmasters were being blamed for unexplained accounting shortfalls, which began to happen soon after accounts at branches were automated by the introduction of the Horizon system from Fujitsu.

Two of the victims that appeared in the first Computer Weekly article, Jo Hamilton and Noel Thomas, will be the first to be heard on Monday 14 February.

Hamilton was subpostmaster in South Warnborough in Hampshire between 2003 and 2005. Following unexplained losses, Post Office auditors visited the branch in March 2005 and told Hamilton she owed £36,000. They prosecuted her for theft and 14 counts of false accounting, but later dropped the theft charge. The case did not deal with the issue of IT. She was advised to plead guilty to avoid prison, which she did, and was given a year’s probation.

Her house was remortgaged to pay the money back to the Post office, although the losses did not exist outside of the error-prone Horizon IT systems used by subpostmasters in branches.

She had a criminal record until her conviction was overturned in the High Court in April last year in a landmark ruling. Since then, a total of 72 former subpostmasters and Post Office staff have had criminal conviction overturned in the Horizon scandal.

Hamilton was part of a group of 555 victims that took the Post Office to court in a Group Litigation Order (GLO) to prove that the computer system was to blame for the unexplained losses. In December 2019, High Court judge Peter Fraser ruled that they were right and Post Office denials of computer errors were “the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the Earth is flat”.

Noel Thomas was also part of the GLO, and he had his criminal conviction overturned in the High Court alongside Hamilton.

He was a subpostmaster in Gaerwen, Anglesey. After being blamed for unexplained losses, he was sentenced to 12 weeks in prison. “I spent my 60th birthday in there,” he told Computer Weekly in 2009. “It was hell on Earth and it took me a long time to get over it.”

Janet Skinner, Seema Misra and Tracy Felstead were all sent to prison for crimes they did not commit. All three have had their convictions overturned, but not before their lives were turned upside down. Their stories will be heard on February 25.

Sue Palmer, a former Essex subpostmaster, will also tell her story during the public hearings. She was prosecuted by the Post Office in 2004 for financial crimes following unexplained losses, but was found not guilty. She lost her business and home, and although being found not guilty, she suffered the stigma associated with being prosecuted. This was worsened by a local newspaper wrongly reporting that she was found guilty.

Many more will be heard during a two-week period, but this is still only a fraction of the number of people affected by the scandal.

The victims fought hard for the statutory public inquiry after the government originally initiated a non-statutory, which they described as a whitewash.

Many victims are yet to be compensated for their losses and suffering, and no Post Office executive or government officials have been held to account.

Watch the hearings here from February 14.

Timeline of the Post Office Horizon case since Computer Weekly first reported on it in 2009

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