How a computer glitch sent hundreds of British postmasters to jail

An inquiry is underway in the United Kingdom into the wrongful accusation of hundreds of British postal workers of theft, in what has been described in the media as Britain’s biggest miscarriage of justice in its history.

In 1999, the British Post Office introduced a new accounting system, Horizon, to tally transactions. Staff running local branches, known as subpostmasters and mistresses, soon noticed that the computer software did not match the amount of money they had manually recorded at the end of a working day.

Why We Write This

When the British Post Office trusted computer accounting over the word of its employees, it ended up ruining hundreds of lives on faulty data. Now those harmed are seeking justice.

When the Post Office higher-ups became aware of the discrepancies, they began taking local staff straight to court, accusing them of theft, false accounting, and fraud. An average of 30 subpostmasters were jailed annually between 2000 and 2014. A total of 736 subpostmasters were prosecuted.

“Lives were ruined, families were torn apart, families were made homeless and destitute. People who were important, respected, and [an] integral part of the local communities that they served were in some cases shunned,” said Jason Beer QC, counsel to the public inquiry.

However, years later it came to light that the problem was not wrongdoing, but Horizon. The software contained faults that made it appear money was missing from Post Office branches, when all was in fact accounted for.

Britain is no stranger to public inquiries. From the phone hacking by British newspapers in 2011 to the ongoing inquiry into the death of 72 people in the fire at Grenfell Tower in London, successive British governments have regularly turned to such questions to examine particularly troubling injustices.

Now, an inquiry is underway into the wrongful accusation of hundreds of British postal workers of theft, in what has been described in the media as Britain’s biggest miscarriage of justice in its history.

What is the postmaster scandal?

Why We Write This

When the British Post Office trusted computer accounting over the word of its employees, it ended up ruining hundreds of lives on faulty data. Now those harmed are seeking justice.

In 1999, the British Post Office introduced a new accounting system, Horizon, to tally transactions. Staff running local branches, known as subpostmasters and mistresses, soon noticed that the computer software did not match the amount of money they had manually recorded at the end of a working day.

When the Post Office higher-ups became aware of the discrepancies, they began taking local staff straight to court, accusing them of theft, false accounting, and fraud. Many were sent to prison, with an average of 30 subpostmasters jailed every year between 2000 and 2014. A total of 736 subpostmasters were prosecuted.

However, years later it came to light that the problem was not wrongdoing, but Horizon. The software contained faults that made it appear money was missing from Post Office branches, when all was in fact accounted for.

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