Post Office Horizon Scandal

What is Horizon and the Post Office Horizon scandal?

The Post Office Horizon scandal has been ongoing for more than 20 years and has frequently been described as one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in the UK, including by the UK Government. It has impacted thousands of postal workers.

What is Horizon?

A Horizon computer terminal. A black computer monitor on a desk with a keypad and a scanning device.

A Horizon computer terminal

Horizon is a type of software introduced by the Post Office in 1999 and developed by the company Fujitsu. It is used for activities like stocktaking and accounting. When it was first introduced in 1999, it was the biggest non-military IT project in Europe.

The system was, and still is, used by Sub-postmasters and Sub-postmistresses to log sales and generate accounts. Sub-postmasters and Sub-postmistresses (referred to in this article from this point forwards as Sub-postmasters) are self-employed business owners, approved by Post Office Ltd, to run post office branches. They are not directly employed by Post Office but do have a contract with them. This centralised computer system replaced paper accounting.


What is the Horizon scandal?

Problems in the Horizon system were reported immediately after roll-out. The system incorrectly reported accounting shortfalls, sometimes amounting to thousands of pounds.

When these unexplained errors were reported, the Sub-postmasters were blamed for the errors.

Under the Sub-postmasters’ contracts, any shortfalls were their responsibility to pay back. It was almost impossible to prove that these errors were the fault of the Horizon system for those impacted.


What did this mean for the Sub-postmasters?

Sub-postmasters were forced to pay back what the Horizon system indicated they owed, or face prosecution. The Post Office has its own criminal investigations force with the power to prosecute without the involvement of the police.

Many Sub-postmasters paid the shortfalls to avoid prosecution. In many cases, this led to bankruptcy, losing their businesses, and struggling financially.

More than 700 Sub-postmasters were prosecuted for theft and false accounting, among other crimes. Many innocent people were sent to prison or were forced to live with a criminal conviction.

The impact of these accusations, prosecutions and convictions destroyed the lives of hundreds of people. Sadly, there are several suicides linked to the Horizon scandal.


Why did the scandal go on for so many years?

The Post Office used criminal and civil legal action against Sub-postmasters. Often this legal action would bankrupt the accused. Some convictions resulted in prison sentences.

It has been reported by Computer Weekly, among others, that call centre staff were instructed to tell Sub-postmasters no-one else was experiencing problems.


Have the Sub-postmasters found justice?

Alan Bates, a Sub-postmaster impacted by the Horizon scandal, led a drive to find and link up victims. The victims formed the Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance. The alliance led a campaign for justice, supported by local MPs and journalists.

As MPs began to raise issues, the Post Office launched a review. It brought in external investigators Second Sight to produce a report, delivered in 2013. However, their work was stopped by the Post Office in 2015.

At this point, the Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance started a group litigation order. This meant that 555 victims sued the Post Office together on the basis that the Horizon system was unreliable. This did not go to court until 2018.

After a prolonged battle, the claimants won and were awarded £58million in compensation. However, after legal fees, this compensation did little to support the Sub-postmasters who lost their livelihoods.

The result of the ruling did allow Sub-postmasters who had been falsely convicted of crimes to appeal against their convictions. This started a slow processes of quashing (rejecting as invalid) convictions, which is ongoing.


Public Inquiry and the continued fight for justice

In 2021, a public inquiry was launched which is expected to finish in 2024. It has so far revealed the extreme suffering of those impacted.

In 2024, most Sub-postmasters have not had the compensation they are owed, and many have not had their convictions overturned.

In January 2024, a 4-part ITV drama, Mr Bates Vs the Post Office, drew public attention to the situation on a scale that has not been achieved throughout the 20 years it has been ongoing.

As a result of the increased public interest, the Government announced new legislation to exonerate the wrongly convicted postal workers.

London’s Metropolitan Police is investigating the Post Office over potential fraud.

So far, no Post Office or Fujitsu executives have been held accountable.

Further reading

Computer Weekly played a huge part in exposing the scandal and have lots of detailed information available on their website.

Nick Wallis has been investigating the case for over 10 years. You can listen to his BBC Radio 4 Podcast The Great Post Office Trial or read his book The Great Post Office Scandal.

The 4-part TV series Mr Bates vs the Post Office is available to watch on ITVX.