Monday 26 April 2021
The Post Office said its computer system never made a mistake: if there was money missing, someone must have stolen it. A lot of sub-postmasters were wrongly sent to jail.
Nimo Omer: Hi, I’m Nimo – and this is Sensemaker.
One story every day to make sense of the world.
Today, what England’s biggest ever miscarriage of justice tells us about how technology can be weaponised against humans.
“I was scared, I was lost. I was completely lost.”Seema Misra, former sub-postmaster
For hundreds of years the post office has been at the heart of British life. But in the past twenty years, it’s also been at the heart of a scandal.
Because between 2000 and 2014, the Post Office prosecuted hundreds of its sub-postmasters, the people who run its individual branches – for theft, fraud, false accounting.
But now, many of those convictions are being overturned. On Friday, 39 more people were cleared.
“They entered the court as criminals, but walk out as innocent people.”News report
So what’s going on? Just how did the Post Office, one of the country’s most trusted institutions, get to this?
“Going to the prison is a bad name to the family. I wanted to kill myself. Because of the pregnancy – I had another life inside me – I couldn’t kill myself.”Seema Misra, former sub-postmaster
On 11 November 2010, Seema Misra collapsed. She had started the day by dropping her son off at school on the morning of his 10th birthday. A few hours later, she was on the floor of a courtroom.
“I was having a sharp pain in my stomach, and the next time I opened my eyes I was in hospital.”Seema Misra, former sub-postmaster
She had just been sentenced to 15 months in prison for taking £74,000 in cash from her post office branch.
Seema Misra had moved from New Delhi to England in the 1990s – she made her money in the City, before buying a post office branch in southeast England. She became a sub-postmaster, someone who runs a branch licensed by Post Office Ltd, the state-owned business which operates the overall network.
But on Seema Misra’s very first day on the job her computer said £70 was missing from her till, and it all went downhill from there. Every day the computer showed a shortfall. She ploughed her own money into balancing the books, and she repeatedly asked the Post Office to help. But she was only met with threats… Threats which resulted in prosecution, and ended in a conviction.
According to the judge in Seema Misra’s trial, there was no direct evidence that she took the £74,000. There was no CCTV, no fingerprints, nothing in her house or in her bank accounts to suggest she’d gotten hold of all this cash. And yet she somehow ended up in a women’s prison, calling her husband from a phone booth described in one newspaper article as “spattered with blood”.
So what on earth happened?
Seema Misra was told again and again that her computer problems were unique, but this wasn’t true. Everywhere, desperate sub-postmasters like Seema Misra were told that money was missing from their till, and were being accused of stealing it by the Post Office.
And the bearer of that bad news was a computer system called Horizon. Starting in 1999, the Post Office installed it across its branches to bring them into the digital age. Even back then the Post Office board of directors knew there were doubts about how reliable the software was.
And the computer system was defective. There wasn’t actually any money missing from these tills. But Fujitsu, the company which made the software, were making loads of money from the contract. And the Post Office was really keen to turn itself from a loss-making organisation into a profitable business. So for both Fujitsu and the Post Office, it was easier to double down than to admit they’d really messed up.
That meant the Post Office bringing hundreds of private prosecutions against its own workers. For Seema Misra, and many others, the major piece of evidence was some computer software. The judge in her case had asked the jury if they accept the case of the prosecution – that is the Post Office – that Horizon was a robust and reliable system. The jury did accept it, even though of course it wasn’t, and that was enough to secure her conviction.
But even at the time when Seema Misra was convicted, red flags were beginning to appear in public. A year earlier sub-postmasters had told Computer Weekly magazine about the problems they’d had with the Horizon software. Then in 2013 the Post Office finally admitted that it had defects. Two years later, a Fujitsu employee told BBC’s Panorama programme, its flagship investigative show, that bugs in the system were common.
And in 2015, a huge lawsuit brought by 555 sub-postmasters was brought against the Post Office. Four years later they were paid £57 million in damages. It was led by a group called Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance. One of its founders was a man called Julian Smith, who like Seema Misra, was cleared on Friday. He died of cancer last year, but his wife was at court to see him get the justice he’d fought so hard for.
“I can’t describe how he felt knowing that he’d got a criminal conviction… How do you die knowing that you’ve done nothing wrong?”Seema Misra, former sub-postmaster
Seema Misra, Julian Wilson and the 37 other people cleared on Friday have finally got some justice.
“The judgement today said the post office knew there were serious issues with the reliability of the Horizon software, but effectively steamrollered over any subpostmaster who tried to challenge its accuracy.”News report
But hundreds more postal workers are still fighting to clear their names. And even for those who’ve had their convictions overturned, for people like Seema Misra, the damage has already been done.
“Will be able to come out of this? I’m not sure, I’m not sure. I still want to wake up in the morning and say it was a bad dream.”Seema Misra, former sub-postmaster
All because of some computer software – and a powerful organisation willing to use it against them.
Today’s story was written and produced by Xavier Greenwood.