The Mail’s 10-year fight for justice: Post Office scandal saw woman jailed and plunged into depression, a man spend his 60th birthday behind bars and another stepped in front of a bus
Noel Thomas spent his 60th birthday behind bars. Tracy Felstead was jailed and plunged into a depression, twice trying to kill herself.
Martin Griffiths, hounded by Post Office auditors, actually did – leaving a note of apology to his family before stepping in front of a bus.
All these and hundreds more blameless former postmasters and postmistresses were pillars of their village communities until being preposterously branded crooks and having their lives torn apart.
Former post office worker Janet Skinner (centre), with her niece Hayley Adams (right) and her daughter Toni Sisson, celebrating outside the Royal Courts of Justice
Former Post Office sub-postmaster Jo Hamilton reacts to the verdict outside The High Court. The Appeal Court has cleared the names of a group of 42 sub-postmasters
Karen Wilson with a photo of her husband Julian who died in 2016. He was convicted following a Post Office prosecution in 2008. He died of cancer in 2016, but his widow Karen has been fighting to clear his name
And each was peddled the same cruel lie by Post Office investigators – that they were the only one having trouble with the new computer accounting system Horizon.
In truth, it was riddled with bugs and glitches that caused baffling shortfalls in post office branch accounts across the land. Post Office bosses knew this and they watched as hard-working community stalwarts were locked up as convicted thieves – before mounting a cynical plot to hush up the truth.
The Mail has campaigned for justice for the victims for the past decade.
Dedicated former postmistress Jo Hamilton, 62, wrongly accused of stealing £36,000 from her branch in South Warnborough, Hampshire, said: ‘They told me I was the only one. But after my case went to court others came forward to say it had happened to them too.’ An incredible 74 villagers including the vicar turned out to support Mrs Hamilton in the crown court, with many testifying she was the kindest, most honest person they knew. She recalled: ‘Even the judge couldn’t understand why I was pleading guilty.’
So why did she? Because the grandmother-of-three was advised to plead guilty to false accounting in return for a theft charge being dropped, which could have seen her jailed.
It is now clear such agreements were a devious tactic repeated many times by the Post Office. Charging terrified postmasters with theft – and then offering a last-minute deal to drop it for a lesser charge if they agreed to plead guilty – was the ‘key to achieving rapid, and inexpensive, asset recovery’, it was later revealed in a leaked report.
The devastating human cost did not seem to have mattered. Mrs Hamilton said: ‘Even though I never took a penny, I have had a conviction for 13 years. But it was the only way to stay out of prison.’
Mr Thomas, 72, took the deal to avoid imprisonment – but was jailed anyway. He was sentenced to nine months after pleading guilty to false accounting over £50,000 ‘missing’ from his tiny post office in Gaerwen, North Wales, and he turned 60 while in prison.
Horizon computer terminals were introduced into post offices in 1999. Many postmasters had spent years running their branches perfectly efficiently using handwritten ledgers, but were now forced to record every transaction on the computer.
ostmaster Noel Thomas with his children son Edwin and daughter Sian outside the High Court In London
It turned into a Kafkaesque nightmare for some. When Mrs Hamilton found to her shock that Horizon showed £2,000 was missing from her store accounts, she rang the Post Office helpline.
However, when staff tried to fix the blip in the accounts, the ‘missing’ amount simply doubled. Whatever she did, Horizon put her in ever greater debt until to her horror it claimed there was £36,000 unaccounted for. As a sub-postmistress – rather than a direct employee of the Post Office – she was liable for the shortfall and had to pay the money back by re-mortgaging her house.
Between 2000 and 2013, the Post Office successfully prosecuted 736 people over Horizon-related accounting discrepancies.
During that period, it denied its Horizon IT system could be faulty, even though postmasters were mystified by their computer terminals declaring branch shortfalls of tens of thousands of pounds. Karen Wilson has attended many of the court hearings clutching a small box containing some of her husband Julian’s ashes – vowing to seek posthumous justice in his name. The ex-postmaster went to his grave in 2016 bearing the stain of being a convicted criminal.
The couple had used their £100,000 life savings to buy a small post office and shop in Redditch, Worcestershire, working from 5am to 8pm every day. But Horizon kept saying there was money ‘missing’. It ended with the couple losing everything, including their home. Word began to spread, but to anyone who asked – MPs, journalists and even supine ministers – the Post Office insisted its Horizon system was ‘absolutely accurate and reliable’.
Yet bosses knew this was a lie. As the cases mounted up, so did the IT gremlins. By 2006, at least 15 bugs had been found, with names such as ‘network banking bug’, ‘data tree build failure discrepancies’ and ‘phantom transactions’.
Secretly, there was a team of technicians from Fujitsu, the global tech giant which ran Horizon for the Post Office, desperately trying to patch up all the glitches. When postmaster Alan Bates, an experienced businessman also well versed in computers, tried to query a £6,000 discrepancy at his branch in Craig-y-Don on the North Wales coast, the Post Office refused to let him have access to his own branch accounts – yet still held him responsible for the unexplained losses.
It was the start of a David and Goliath battle which culminated in a series of linked High Court trials between ‘Bates and Others’ versus the Post Office, in which 555 former postmasters sued over the unfairness of the system.
The trials began in 2018 and were due to last three years. The Post Office – which is entirely owned by taxpayers – blew tens of millions of pounds fighting every single step of the way, apparently untroubled by the costs.
Campaigners said the money could have been better spent saving hundreds of local post offices threatened with closure.
There was applause yesterday as Janet Skinner, 50, from Hull, walked out of the court crying, cleared after having being jailed for nine months in 2007.
There is now a Government inquiry into the scandal, but campaigners fear it will be a whitewash by letting off the hook former Post Office chiefs.
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