A scandal too far – what the Post Office debacle reveals about UK justice

Spanning over two decades, the Post Office scandal is without a doubt one of the most serious miscarriages of justice in British history. However, how has it taken an ITV drama to bring it to the forefront of UK politics, and why is it still important now that action is being undertaken? 

The fiasco began in 1999, when the Post Office introduced Fujitsu’s Horizon software system to modernise accounts and streamline services.  Subpostmasters were accused of falsifying accounts to steal from their Post Office branches, with many being told that they were the only one reporting problems with the Horizon system despite more than 900 being prosecuted. This led to subpostmasters having their branches taken away and forced to repay the money that they were accused of stealing from the Post Office – this has still not been returned to all.

The wrongful convictions brought shame and humiliation on the victims of the faulty system, with 700 people being prosecuted between 1999 and 2015. However, no Post Office officials have faced prosecution for their role in the cover-up and the damage caused for the victims and their families – Paula Vennells, Post Office boss during the Horizon scandal, has agreed to give back her CBE due to mounting media pressure following the release of the ITV drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office, which exposed the scandal to the UK public.

As of January 2024, 93 of the convictions have been overturned, and £32.4 million has been paid in compensation to victims. However, Post Office Minister Kevin Hollinrake has pledged £1bn for future compensation payments, demonstrating the scope of the task ahead in ensuring justice is administered to all victims. 

According to the BBC, forensic accountants who discovered flaws in the Horizon system in April 2014 were sacked by Post Office bosses in a cover-up that the government was aware of under the codename of ‘Project Sparrow’. 

On 10th January, the government confirmed the blanket exoneration of hundreds to quash pre-existing convictions, entitling victims to £600,000 in reparation payments in an attempt to rebuild lives. In addition, those who were not convicted but were forced to pay out to the Post Office due to Horizon failures will receive at least £75,000 upfront. 

Although the release of the ITV drama Alan Bates vs the Post Office has prompted positive action and brought the injustice to the forefront of the political agenda, questions must be raised surrounding the UKs approach to scandal in general. If every injustice will require a TV drama to force the public to care, how will we move forward with respect to the victims of every other scandal that remains unresolved, of which there are many? 

It took twenty-seven years for the jury to rule that the victims of the Hillsborough tragedy were unlawfully killed, and were blameless victims of police negligence. Even in 2024, the Hillsborough Law, introduced by Andy Burnham, has not been passed – the law would require officials to be truthful during inquiries in the aftermath of a disaster, which now holds no penalty. It appears that there is no urgency when dealing with these tragedies and scandals that have destroyed lives and still carry consequences.

This also raises questions over the approach to ‘scandal’ in the UK in general.

One scandal that has been overlooked is the Contaminated Blood Scandal, where in the 1970s and 80s, thousands of NHS patients received contaminated blood transfusions, meaning that they became infected with HIV and Hepatitis C, both being potentially fatal. It took until 2015 for the government to agree to open a public inquiry, which began in September 2018 – it took until 2022 for victims to be able to claim £100,000 in compensation. However, nobody has ever faced prosecution despite civil servants, senior doctors and government knowing of the problem long before any action was taken – the lack of accountability is astounding in a tragedy that was so easily preventable. 

This also raises questions over the approach to ‘scandal’ in the UK in general – in theory, laws such as the recent one for a blanket exoneration should be easy due to the flexibility of the UKs constitution, but in reality, this does not appear to manifest. The role of the media in the treatment of scandal and tragedy may be seen as too prominent, as our legal system does not appear to push injustice to the front of the political agenda quickly enough. Unless every scandal is treated with the same urgency as the Post Office scandal was after over two decades, the future of fair justice for individuals seems bleak.

One may argue that if Sunak is heading for defeat in the upcoming general election, now should be the time to deal with unresolved scandals that cast a shadow over the UK justice system – taking a step back from hugely controversial political statements such as the Rwanda Policy and educational reforms to contribute something positive to people’s lives that would make a real difference.

Image credit: Post Office and shop by Bob Abell, licensed under CC BY 2.0, cropped from original.

Image description: Outside of a village post office.