Computer Says NO. Go To Jail. Just Another Day At The Post Office.
Am I out of step with most News reporting agencies in feeling that one of the most astonishing Court cases in recent years was largely unreported as it trundled along over the past decade? Or maybe I just missed it.
What have you seen in the media before this year about the saga of the Post Office and its IT system called “Horizon”? Ring any bells?
In around 2000 this system written by the IT Company Fujitsu began to be rolled into use in Post Office branches, that is, into the sort of Post Office which is based inside a privately owned shop, perhaps a newsagency or cafe.
Therefore, the system was used by subpostmasters who were really just shopkeepers. And as shopkeepers, they did not network with each other or have any Union or trade body looking after them. Each of them was separate, and on their own.
The new Horizon IT system began to cause them problems. On reporting to the Post Office, each was told that no-one else had experienced any problems, and they must be doing things wrongly.
So in 2005 on her first day of training in her new post office (which she had paid £250,000.00 to buy) Mrs Seema Misra watched as the Post Office trainers ran the system for her. At the end of the day, the system showed a £150.00 shortfall which was dismissed by the trainers as just one of those things. “It’s never penny accurate”.
Every day following, the system showed a shortfall of £200.00 or so. It is the contractual responsibility of subpostmasters to make good all shortfalls from their own money. Mrs Misra got no help from the Post Office. She got threats.
In January 2008, pregnant, she was sent to jail. Say that again? Sent to Jail. Pregnant.
Found guilty of theft of £74,000.00 and false accounting. Here is -a link- to a case commentary which concludes with the timetable to the Crown Court Hearing. If you click on the links in the timetable you can read the transcript of the court proceedings on each day.
So far as false accounting is concerned, she admitted that. Her reasoning as she explained was that, whilst the shortfall apparent in the accounts was the result of computer rogue errors and were not her fault, they would result in her being required to “repay” tens of thousands of pounds if she did not try to disguise them in some way.
She did however plead “not guilty” to the charge of theft, and that is what her trial was about.
I would also point out a difference between the evidence given to the jury in her trial, and the evidence which is usually given to a jury in an “embezzlement” trial.
That is, there seems to be no prosecution evidence or allegation of what Mrs Misra is supposed to have done with the £74,000.00 she is accused of having stolen – where she had put it, or spent it.
Usually when a person is charged with embezzlement, the money is traced. Often that in itself is the best evidence of the thefts.
Indeed it is usually by examination of the accused person’s bank account that the existence of large amounts of unexplained money gives rise to, or justifies, suspicions. You know the sort of thing – the headlines say “Trusted employee spent stolen millions on girls, drink and fast cars” (c.f. George Best – “the rest I just wasted”. Sorry).
This sort of thing – link- thief buys jewellery and gambles and sends the kids to private school and goes on holidays and buys a new car or –link- where the somewhat fabulously named US Attorney Mr Anthony Eugene Cheatham “used the money to pay his bills, write personal checks to himself and family members—and make payments to other individuals from whom he had previously taken money”.
As an aside, – Would you go to a lawyer called Mr Cheatham? He must be quite charming to leap that hurdle.
But – No such money was traced in this case. No allegations were made: – of living beyond her means, of nice holidays new cars or works of art. Do you think, – Because, there never was £74,000.00 gone missing? Durr.
All she knew was that she was on her own, she had no knowledge that this wasn’t happening only to her. But the Post Office did. There were lots of others.
Here is -a link- to the Telegraph article highlighting her case and other cases.
I find it hard to imagine what it must feel like. To invest £200,000.00 of my own money (£67,000.00 on a mortgage) into a business where the computer says each day I owe £200 and each day and each day. Would I sleep? Then to be arrested, then sent to jail.
Not just her though :-
Mr Thomas. Age 72. Jailed.
Per Wikipedia, Ms Jo Hamilton was faced with having to repay the non-existent sum of £36,000.00 and because she couldn’t afford it and hadn’t had the money she tried to “falsify” the already false deficit. She pleaded guilty to fourteen charges of false accounting and re-mortgaged her house to repay money which never existed.
Rubina Nami jailed 12 months. Lost her house. Slept in a van upon release.
Private Eye states one person has committed suicide.
In 2011 this state of affairs was reported upon in Private Eye magazine. The journalist runs a Blog and is far more explanatory than I could be – he has been writing about the case for years here is – a link-.
In spite of the fact that the Post Office had been instrumental in the jailing of its subpostmasters for years, it seems that only in 2015 did the Chief Executive Paula Vennells – (who earned five or so millions of pounds whilst in post and who has not been sent to jail) – instruct her employees to enquire of Fujitsu whether the system was truly secure or whether external logins to its Horizon System were possible.
Its Court pleadings say ”neither Post Office nor Fujitsu has the ability to log on remotely to a horizon terminal so as to conduct transactions”
It has become clear that the Post office has for years been desperate to defend the indefensible. Faced with real and obvious evidence to the contrary its position appears to have been – “Fujitsu say there’s nowt wrong with what we bought. So you must all be liars and jail’s the place for you – off you go.” I paraphrase.
Presumably because a billion pounds or so has been spent upon this system.
Possibly because it would feared that losing a court case would eventually result in the privatisation of the Post Office.
So for over one decade if not two decades it has been telling lies or allowing Fujitsu to do so without proper consideration of the facts and exhibiting, in the words of The Honourable Mr Justice Fraser “Institutional Obstinacy” amounting to repeated pig headed assertions that their system “cannot be to blame” and simply failing to accept all or any factual accounts by all witnesses to the contrary.
Because there is now a reported case. In fact the Post Office has agreed to pay compensation/settlement money of £58 million or so to – how many do you think? The number is 550 subpostmasters.
Five hundred and fifty poor sods. Five hundred and fifty lives disrupted for year after year.
The written judgment is a very good read. –Link Here- You can perhaps tell whether the Judge is furious. The levels of politeness and overt fairness have gone into overdrive. He is scrupulous as can be and his judgment runs to 1030 paragraphs over 313 pages.
After delivery of it he is reported to have said
“Based on the knowledge that I have gained both from conducting the trial and writing the Horizon Issues judgment, I have very grave concerns regarding the veracity of evidence given by Fujitsu employees to other courts in previous proceedings about the known existence of bugs, errors and defects in the Horizon system. These previous proceedings include the High Court in at least one civil case brought by the Post Office against a sub- postmaster and the Crown Court in a greater number of criminal cases, also brought by the Post Office against sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses.
“After very careful consideration, I have therefore decided, in the interests of justice, to send the papers in the case to the Director of Public Prosecutions, Mr Max Hill QC, so he may consider whether the matter to which I have referred should be the subject of any prosecution.
“It will be entirely a matter for the DPP what, if anything, he does in respect of this referral…I wish to make it clear that the specific subject to which I will drawing the specific attention of the DPP relates to the evidence on previous occasions of Fujitsu employees.”
There was a time when the person in charge of a monumental balls-up requiring a negotiated settlement of £58m. would resign. Never mind personal responsibility or culpability even if there were none. As a matter of honour.
Wikipedia tells me Paula Anne Vennells, CBE, FRSA is “a British businesswoman and Anglican priest. She was Chief Executive officer of the Post Office Limited from 2012 to 2019 before assuming the chair of Imperial College Healthcare Trust, one of the largest NHS hospital groups”.
Yes, she’s running hospitals now.
By the way, and not before time, it would appear that the Horizon system is now working properly. So that’s all fine.
Here is a suitable song to cheer us all up – link –
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