Hundreds of lives ruined by faulty software at Britain's Post Office

By Anna Cooban for CNN

After a piece of software incorrectly showed that money had gone missing, a trusted, centuries-old British government corporation used its financial and legal might to convict and bankrupt hundreds of people who ran its branches. Some family members say their loved-ones were left so distressed they took their own lives.

This could be the plot of a dystopian novel, but it describes the real-life ordeal that scores of the so-called sub-postmasters of the UK Post Office went through between 1999 and 2015. The government — which owns the Post Office — has described the scandal as one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in British history. 

Over two decades, livelihoods and reputations were destroyed, families shattered, and savings lost. Out of thousands of affected sub-postmasters who ran small businesses in communities across Britain, 700 were convicted of criminal offences. Some spent time in prison.

It began with errors in an IT system called Horizon, built by Japan's Fujitsu and introduced in 1999 to replace paper-based accounting. 

Soon after its installation, branch managers realized the system was faulty. The software regularly showed that money — often many thousands of pounds — had gone missing from Post Office accounts. In many cases, it was simply wrong.

Jo Hamilton was running a post office in a small village in southern England in 2003 when her Horizon computer started to show a shortfall of £2,000 ($2,500). When she ran the numbers again, she told CNN, that amount "doubled in front of (her) eyes." 

In the end, Hamilton re-financed her home to pay the non-existent shortfall that — by the time the Post Office had taken her to court in 2007, charging her with theft and false accounting — had ballooned to £36,000 ($45,800).

Shamed and exhausted, Hamilton pled guilty to false accounting on the proviso that the theft charge would be dropped. "It was destroying me," she said. 

The scandal has been the subject of legal cases and UK media reports for years, but only since last week's broadcast of a TV drama spotlighting its brutal human toll have public awareness and outrage skyrocketed.

The ITV network drama "Mr Bates vs The Post Office" focuses on the sub-postmasters' tireless campaign to prove their innocence and secure compensation. Alan Bates is a former sub-postmaster who led the effort. 

Since the show's release, the government has demonstrated, in a matter of days, the sort of urgency that sub-postmasters have been demanding for years. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced that parliament would quickly pass landmark legislation to overturn the convictions of hundreds of sub-postmasters.

But the United Kingdom's political and legal establishment has still to answer some vital questions, including who knew what and when; which individuals — if any — should be held criminally culpable; and the extent to which Fujitsu, a company worth $30 billion that is still a major supplier to the UK government, should be on the hook to pay compensation to victims. 

The Post Office has so far paid more than £138 million ($176 million) in compensation, a company spokesperson told CNN. Those payments follow a 2019 civil lawsuit brought by more than 500 sub-postmasters that ruled that Horizon contained "bugs, errors and defects."

"We are doing all we can to right the wrongs of the past, including extensive work to support overturning wrongful convictions," the Post Office spokesperson said. 

'I was so afraid'

The odds were always stacked against sub-postmasters. 

Under the terms of their Post Office contracts, best described as franchise agreements, they were liable for any financial losses in their branch. Once their contracts were terminated, many were barred by Post Office investigators from entering their business premises to try to find evidence proving their innocence.

Whenever Hamilton phoned the Horizon helpline, operators told her she was the only person experiencing problems with the system. 

But there were many others.

A Post Office in central London seen in January 2024
A Post Office in central London seen in January 2024 Photo credit: Aaron Chown/PA Images/Getty Images

In 2008, unexplained shortfalls on Wendy Buffrey's Horizon kept doubling as she re-submitted the same calculations. Post Office investigators told her she was the only person experiencing these problems. 

"I knew that I'd be held responsible for that £36,000. So, I maxed all my credit cards out, put £10,000 back in, and rolled the accounts over because I didn't know what else to do," the former sub-postmistress in the English town of Cheltenham told CNN.

A lawyer told Buffrey at the time that pleading not guilty would likely result in a three-year prison sentence. "I was so afraid that I did plead guilty to false accounting when they dropped the theft charge," she said. 

The ordeal has taken a heavy, ongoing toll. "I've got stress-related fibromyalgia, which means I'm constantly in pain," she said.

Neil Hudgell, a lawyer representing about 350 sub-postmasters, told CNN he had been told directly of sub-postmasters and family members who had taken their lives after being falsely accused or as a result of losing their businesses and reputations. 

In a witness impact statement, the wife of Martin Griffith said he deliberately walked in front of a bus after sinking into deep depression following the Post Office's decision to terminate his contract. He had borrowed from his parents to make up shortfalls in his accounts only to have his branch robbed.

Seeking justice 

Prior to the TV show's release, sub-postmasters were only inching their way toward justice.

Following the 2019 legal victory, hundreds more sub-postmasters have come forward saying their Horizon system had incorrectly displayed shortfalls. But so far, only 93 of the 700 convicted sub-postmasters have been exonerated, including Hamilton and Buffrey. To date, more than 2,700 have applied for compensation. 

But many sub-postmasters say the compensation they've received isn't enough, and are demanding accountability for those behind the affair.

A spokesperson for London's Metropolitan Police told CNN that it had opened a criminal investigation in 2020 into possible fraud offences committed by the Post Office. It is also investigating Fujitsu for possible offences connected to sub-postmasters' prosecutions. 

Two government ministers said this week that Fujitsu could be forced to pay out compensation to victims, depending on the findings of an independent public inquiry into the scandal.

A spokesperson for Fujitsu said the company was "fully committed to supporting the inquiry in order to understand what happened and to learn from it." 

"The inquiry has reinforced the devastating impact on postmasters' lives and (those) of their families, and Fujitsu has apologized for its role in their suffering," the spokesperson said.

The offices of Japanese technology firm Fujitsu in Bracknell, England, seen on January 10, 2024.
The offices of Japanese technology firm Fujitsu in Bracknell, England, seen on January 10, 2024. Photo credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images

James Hartley, a lawyer at Freeths, the law firm that represented sub-postmasters in their civil case four years ago, believes the Post Office deserves most of the blame. 

"This whole case, yes, it's about defects in a massive IT system but, even more than that, it is about the corporate behavior of Post Office," he told CNN.

Buffrey, in Cheltenham, takes a similar view. 

"The Horizon system was a piece of machinery and software that wasn't working correctly," she said. "(But) it was people that pushed our prosecutions through. It was people that didn't investigate things. It was people that put us into prison, into our graves, and into illness — for probably the rest of our lives."

'20 years of trauma' 

No amount of money can undo "20 years of trauma," said Siema Kamran, who bought a post office branch in north London with her husband, Kamran Ashraf, in 2001.

Three years later, Ashraf felt pressured by his lawyer to plead guilty to theft after an audit by the Post Office had found an unexplained shortfall of £25,000 ($32,000). Ashraf had his conviction overturned in 2020. 

Kamran remembers the exact date — February 26 — of her husband's court appearance two decades ago, the day he was sentenced and sent to prison.

"I thought I would see him in a couple of hours. Except he went in and I kept calling him and it was going to voicemail," she told CNN. "Eventually, my cousin turned up at the door … and told me that my husband had been sent to prison. I just felt like my world collapsed that day." 

Ashraf spent the first few weeks of his nine-month sentence in a high-security prison, locked up for 23 hours a day, before being transferred to a lower-security prison. He was released after four months, but spent the next five wearing an electronic tag around his ankle so authorities could monitor his whereabouts.

Kamran said her husband, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his ordeal, finds it too difficult to talk to the media about his experience. She, her husband, and their three children all require therapy — something she thinks they will need for the rest of their lives. 

Now a self-employed make-up artist, Kamran simply cannot bring herself to work for a big company again. "If the Post Office can do this to you, then God knows what any other brand is capable of," she said.