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The Post Office Scandal: Britain's most widespread miscarriage of justice

A digitally edited photo of a Post Office sign with glitch effects

736 Post Office branch managers. One faulty computer accounting system. 20 years of torture. This is the story of the single most egregious and widespread miscarriage of justice in British criminal history.

Financial crime is treated very seriously in this country. Embezzling funds while in a position of some monetary power or privileged position is treated especially seriously. If it just so happens that the victim is the British government? You’d better believe the full weight of the law’s coming down on the accused’s head.

It’s understandable. Thieves must be punished and examples must be made of them. Plus stealing from government coffers is stealing from everyone, right?

When the state has the power to investigate, arrest, try and sentence people - and take away their livelihoods and even homes - it’s important they conduct themselves impeccably. They must investigate fairly and ensure that checks and balances are in place. Unfortunately for the hundreds and hundreds of Post Office managers wrongly accused of false accounting since the year 2000, this isn’t always the case.

Technically, the Post Office is a private company. It is, however, owned by the UK government. The specifics are a little convoluted, but the set-up is such that the Post Office can unilaterally investigate and prosecute employees, unlike almost all other private corporations.

Between 2000 and 2014, they acted as judge, jury and executioner to 736 people who ran Post Office franchises, known as sub-postmasters. None of whom were guilty of the various accountancy crimes they were told they had committed.

Beyond the Horizon

The story revolves around financial discrepancies - effectively numbers not adding up. There were increasing shortfalls in the accounts of more and more Post Offices across the country. Some of just a few pounds, others tens of thousands.

Sub-postmasters who had never so much as seen a penny go unaccounted for before were seeing serious shortfalls in their accounting systems. Many would just debit the missing amount from their personal funds in order not to have their account flagged. For an easy life. This wasn’t possible for all postmasters though. Especially not when the amounts consisted of four or even five figures.

Flagging up these discrepancies was the Post Office’s accountancy, stocktaking and transaction software, a system called Horizon. Designed and managed by the Japanese tech giant Fujitsu, the software was heavily flawed and contained serious ‘bugs, errors and defects’ which would create financial discrepancies where there were none. Despite the tailor-made system costing the Post Office a cool £1bn.

Horizon data was used in the court cases against the postmasters. Data that was wholly inaccurate was relied upon to convict more than 700 innocent people of extremely serious financial crimes.

The impact

Counsel to the public inquiry into the scandal, Jason Beer QC, summed up the effect of the widespread miscarriage of justice perfectly in court. He said:

‘Lives were ruined, families were torn apart, families were made homeless and destitute. Reputations were destroyed, not least because the crimes of which the men and women were convicted all involved acting dishonestly.

‘People who were important, respected and integral part of the local communities that they served were in some cases shunned. A number of men and women sadly died before the state publicly recognised that they were wrongly convicted.’

Many victims were forced to declare bankruptcy after making up the shortfalls themselves - some even remortgaged their houses to that end. People were sent to prison. One woman, Vipinchandra Patel, was imprisoned for a crime she didn't commit while heavily pregnant.

Not only was there bankruptcy, prosecutions and imprisonments, there was also coerced false confessions, widescale defamation, losses of livelihood, homelessness, divorce and even suicide.

To make matters worse

Mistakes happen. Even huge ones capable of ruining thousands of people’s lives. The Horizon mistake was enormous. But with some contrition and action, some of the damage could have been undone. The Post Office, however, chose another route. They doubled down and covered their backsides.

Evidence uncovered by journalists, which has since been aired on a BBC Panorama special, is damning. It shows that executives at the Post Office and Fujitsu became aware of Horizon’s errors while prosecutions were underway. They then suppressed the information.

The fightback

Throughout the decade and a half of the scandal, the Post Office was prosecuting an average of one new sub-postmaster a week. Despite knowledge of Horizon’s flaws and the sheer number of people apparently cooking the books at an unprecedented and alarming level.

Eventually, the number of unfairly accused amassed such a weight as to create a tipping point. Victims began to hear stories of others in their position, despite continually being told by their investigators that this wasn’t the case. That their case was unconnected to any others. Slowly but surely, victims reached out to one another.

In time, a support group was formed. It grew in numbers, confidence and strength. Civil cases began to be brought, one by one. The Post Office, in the end, could not defend itself. The truth came out in court.

By Christmas 2019, the Post Office agreed to settle with 555 of their victims to the tune of £58m. After court costs, the pot was £12m. It was shared out amongst the claimants.

The future

How does the story end? Well, we’re yet to find out. Thankfully, it seems as if no one unfairly accused is still serving any kind of sentence, custodial or otherwise. Although barely 10% of victims have had their convictions formally quashed.

The scandal has been exposed, with those responsible duly disgraced. Although not held fully answerable. At least not yet, anyway.

Compensation has been slow in coming with the government initially - and shamefully - refusing to pay out where it really should. The Post Office has claimed not to have sufficient funds for payouts. There is some good news for victims on this front, though. After lobbying by MPs, the government promised financial compensation to the tune of £100,000 to all victims.

Public interest in the case was reignited at the beginning of 2024 after a new television drama, titled Mr Bates vs The Post Office, aired. Just over a week later, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced new legislation to exonerate the wrongly convicted branch managers with £1 billion worth of compensation set aside.

Investigations into the original investigators have been opened with some allegations claiming that they were offered financial bonuses for securing prosecutions. Paula Vennells, who served as the CEO of the Post Office between 2012 and 2019, handed back her CBE amid the fallout.

Toby Jones
Toby Jones stars in Mr Bates vs. The Post Office |  Editorial credit: DFree /

Mr Bates Vs The Post Office

by Amy Lavelle

It’s acknowledged as the greatest miscarriage in British legal history, so it makes sense that the Post Office Scandal, which unfurled over 20 years and ruined countless lives, has made it onto our television screens as a new drama on ITV.

With an all-star cast, the series takes a look at what happened and how hundreds of postmasters and postmistresses were accused of embezzlement over what was in fact a faulty computer system.


Titled Mr Bates vs The Post Office, the four-part miniseries focuses on the story of Alan Bates, the former postmaster who was falsely accused of fraud. His contract with the Post Office ended in 2003 after the computer system Horizon recorded sums of £1,200 that were unaccounted for. Bates and his partner, Suzanne Sercombe, had invested their life savings into their Post Office branch in Wales, which were lost following the accusations.

Bates, who had already been aware of issues with Horizon, started a website, contacted other postmasters and postmistresses with concerns about the system and launched the group Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance. 500 people came forward. The group, led by Bates and another five lead claimants, took the Post Office to court in 2018. The Post Office agreed to settle in 2019.

Needless to say, with such a complex story, which affected hundreds of lives, not everything could make it into the programme. The series dramatizes events, with names changed, details summarised and years condensed to fit into the narrative.

Its stars

If any viewers aren’t familiar with the story, many of the actors appearing on the programme will be; the series is studded with famous faces.

Toby Jones takes on the titular role. While Jones admitted he wasn’t familiar with the story before taking on the part, he was ‘appalled’ to learn about it. Jones was able to talk to Bates before working on the show, as well as people who know him. Series writer Gwyneth Hughes described Bates as the ‘head’ of the story.

Bates’ partner, Suzanne Sercombe, is played by Broadchurch and Coronation Street actress Julie Hesmondhalgh.

If Bates is the head, Hughes described former postmistress Jo Hamilton as the heart. Hamilton was accused of stealing £36,000 and pleaded guilty to false accounting to avoid prison time. She is played by Bafta-winning Monica Dolan, who exchanged emails with Hamilton before starting the series.

Gavin and Stacey’s Ifan Huw Dafydd takes on the role of another postmaster, Noel Thomas, who was one of the people sent to prison after he was accused of theft and false accounting. Thomas pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, despite being innocent, in hopes of avoiding prison time. He was sentenced to nine months in prison anyway.

Happy Valley’s Amit Shah, Downton Abbey’s Lesley Nicol, Gentleman Jack’s Katherine Kelley and Hesmondhalgh’s fellow Coronation Street actor Will Mellow are just a few of the other famous faces who make appearances on the programme.

There’s also a cameo from one person who was involved in the real affair. The former Chairman of the Conservative Party Nadhim Zahawi plays himself in the programme. Zahawi was a member of the Parliamentary Select Committee that looked into the scandal.


As for the real-life counter-parts: what was their reaction to the series that showcased their tragedy?

One woman involved, Deirdre Connolly said the show ‘brought it all back'. Connolly was forced to repay £15,000 she didn’t owe.

But the series has won the approval of other people depicted. Noel Thomas described it as fantastic and Bates also praised the programme.

The drama has brought the scandal to the attention of several people who weren’t aware of the details. Then-CEO of the Pos Office Paula Vennells was the focus of a petition calling for her to be stripped of her CBE in light of the injustice. While it had gathered 1,000 signatures, that number jumped to 280,000 following the programme. She has since handed back her CBE.