Someone once said that “To err is human, but to really foul things up requires a computer”. Still it is mercifully rare to hear of IT faults and miscalculations resulting in innocent people being sent to prison.
Yet this was precisely what happened when an IT system called Horizon, first introduced between 1999 and 2000, led to shortfalls in the accounts of hundreds of subpostmasters up and down the country. These accounting discrepancies resulted in some individuals facing bankruptcy, criminal charges and even jail.
Hundreds of former Post Office workers were vindicated this month when a High Court ruled in their favour following a landmark lawsuit, which was as shocking as it was historic. 550 people brought legal action against the Post Office and achieved a reported £58m compensation pay-out.
The court heard how over the years “bugs, errors and defects in the Horizon system caused discrepancies in postmasters’ branch accounts”.
James Hartley, the claimant’s solicitor said that the judge had also found that the IT system was “not robust during many of the years in question” and there was a “material risk” of it being the cause of the shortfalls.”
One lady told the BBC that she was feeding over £100 a day from her shop into the Post Office tills in a bid to balance the discrepancies. One day, the Horizon IT system, which is provided by Fujitsu, reported a shortfall of £10,000.
This worker said the problem went on for two years during which time she received very little support from the Post Office. She was eventually suspended from her role, convicted of theft and jailed whilst pregnant with her second child.
Another worked told Sky News: “Every single week I had the same problems of not being able to understand the errors that were occurring. The figures on the system never matched the physical stock and cash.
“My contract was terminated but I wasn’t criminally charged because there was no evidence that I had taken the money.”
Evidence will now be sent to the director of public prosecutions to decide on further action.