In It’s a Wonderful Life, the protagonist, George Bailey, runs into some financial trouble. The cause is his business partner, Uncle Billy, who accidentally misplaces $8,000. George knows what failing to balance the books will mean — “bankruptcy and scandal and prison,” a prospect that drives him to the brink of suicide. He prays for help, and heaven sends his guardian angel, Clarence, who teaches him that love and friendship are more powerful than money and its troubles. If only every such story were so heartwarming.

A new TV dramatization in the U.K., Mr Bates vs The Post Office, tells the true story of accounting shortfalls experienced by employees of the British government–owned Post Office. Sadly, its message isn’t that it’s a wonderful life, but rather an unjust one.

In Britain, the Post Office operates as a franchise with individual branch managers or “sub-postmasters.” From 1999 to 2015, around 4,000 branch managers were accused of mishandling company finances. During this time, 900 were prosecuted and 700 convicted on criminal charges such as fraud and theft, 236 were jailed, and many more were left in financial and personal ruin as reputations, marriages, and lives were destroyed.

The Post Office claimed that its IT software, Horizon, developed by Japan’s Fujitsu and first implemented in 1999 under prime minister Tony Blair, was reliable and that the shortfalls were explained by malfeasance. The truth emerged only slowly.

In 2009, Computer Weekly published an investigative report into the computer issues based on the testimony of seven postmasters. According to its report, the Post Office instructed the staff in its call center “to tell callers they were the only ones experiencing problems” and “lied to journalists, politicians and anybody else who questioned the robustness of the Horizon system.” Those who publicly criticized the IT system were threatened with legal action or bought off in nondisclosure agreements.

That is, until a group of 555 postmasters under the campaign Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) found strength in numbers. In 2019, JFSA won a High Court case, Bates v Post Office. The judge, Justice Fraser, expressed “very grave concerns,” finding that “bugs, errors and defects in the Horizon system caused discrepancies in postmasters’ branch accounts,” and concluding: “The Post Office’s approach to evidence, even despite their considerable resources which are being liberally deployed at considerable cost, amounts to attack and disparagement of the claimants individually and collectively.”

As the Times of London reports, as early as 2000, “many workers continually reported bugs in the system with unexplained shortfalls in their accounts, but these were ignored. Private prosecutions continued until 2015.” The Criminal Cases Review Commission called the scandal the “most widespread miscarriage of justice the CCRC has ever seen and represents the biggest single series of wrongful convictions in British legal history.”

So far, the U.K. government has paid out £124.7 million ($158.6 million) in compensation to those wrongfully convicted. But as of December, only 93 of the 700 convictions had been overturned, while only 25 of those with overturned convictions had received their full compensation.

To give an idea of the damages, consider the stories of some of those caught up in the scandal. Individuals such as Lee Castleton, who the Guardian reports was “made bankrupt by the Post Office after a two-year legal battle.” Castleton had purchased a post office in England in 2003 but “within a year the computer system showed a £25,000 shortfall, despite him calling the Post Office’s helpline 91 times as he suspected the problem was with the Horizon IT system.” Or take Seema Misra, who “was sentenced to 15 months in prison for theft and locked up on her son’s 10th birthday while eight weeks pregnant.” It took Misra eleven years of expensive litigation to be acquitted.

Money can be repaid, and defendants acquitted, but nothing can restore the time and peace lost by those falsely accused. Years of distress cannot be undone. Some, like Martin Griffiths, are already dead. Griffiths was a married father of two who spent his entire life’s savings trying to balance a £57,000 shortfall but was sacked anyway. His mental health deteriorated, and he threw himself in front of a bus.

Despite years of litigation and journalistic coverage, public pressure came to bear only after the TV drama was aired a couple of weeks ago. In response, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak promised to advance emergency legislation exonerating all those wrongfully accused and offered upfront payments of compensation.

But who is responsible? In 2020, the U.K. government ordered a statutory public inquiry. The Met Police opened an investigation and is currently considering possible charges of fraud and perverting the course of justice for Post Office prosecutors. Yet so far, no one among Post Office or Fujitsu leadership has been convicted of any wrongdoing.

It would be easy to say that the guilty party was simply a centralized computer system — one that was, at the time of its implementation, the largest nonmilitary IT program in Europe. But is this to become something for bureaucrats to hide behind? Whether the Post Office’s prosecutors knew the software was faulty or were too dim to join the dots, they had a responsibility to the truth. There are no shortcuts. The government must stand scrutiny and answer for its own misdeeds. Until it does, the scandal continues.

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Lives Ruined, Reputations Destroyed: Britain’s Shocking Post Office Scandal

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