The Post Office: unfair treatment of postmasters due to fault in their Horizon software?

By Bhavisha Parekh

Two months after I started working as a case handler at Contact Law, in 2009, I was approached by a client over the phone. The client was a sub-postmaster at her village Post Office. She had been audited that morning and found that her Post Office had a loss to the value of £7,000.

The client had found this loss when doing her daily accounts a week earlier and asked the Post Office auditors to assist her and investigate the matter to locate the loss and rectify the accounts.

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Pillar of the community accused of theft

Post Office accounts consist of cash, stamps, and postal orders as well as anything else they trade in; everything is given a financial value. The client’s loss was not of cash and all her transactions were showing to be completed correctly.

However, upon the auditor’s confirmation of the loss she was charged with theft from the Post Office and given notice of being given a statutory demand for the £7,000.

The client was in tears over the phone as she felt she had been wrongly charged; the client had run the Post Office for many years without fault and had become a pillar of the community.

She felt victimised, as when trying to resolve this problem with the Post Office she had asked them to audit her branch and now she was being charged with theft.

Investigation turns up no answers

That day I gave the client details of a firm local to her to assist her with this matter. A few weeks later when calling the client to get feedback on the outcome of her case, she explained that she had had been investigated by the Post Office but they had not found anything to show she had taken the money.

When auditing her branch the final accounts showed a loss; however, the auditors were unable to trace where this loss occurred. After further investigation and having a forensic accountant look into the matter, there were still no answers as to where this loss had occurred.

This seemed pretty strange; the client in the meantime was told she could not work in the Post Office or even enter the building so she was left without an income and fear of being criminally prosecuted.

Not an isolated incident

However, after a month or so the Post Office wrote to her to state they had dropped the charges. She would however not be able to commence work as a sub-postmaster, and no explanation of the matter was given.

Since speaking to this client I was approached by two more former sub-postmasters with the same case. However, they have not been as 'lucky' as my initial client - one was dismissed as a sub-postmaster and asked to repay this ‘lost’ amount, and the other was charged with theft and imprisoned for 18 months as well as ordered to pay a sum of £75,000.

In all three cases the Post Office and their trained auditors have been unable to locate what this loss is, further they have not been able to trace any money into the postmasters’ accounts. Apart from there actually being a loss, there has been no evidence of any theft ever taking place.

Horizon software may be to blame

I have only spoken to three sub-postmasters; however this is happening at an increasing scale all over England. Computer experts are now stating that the ‘Horizon’ software the Postmasters use is flawed and so showing these losses.

Potentially, due to this computer error, many sub-postmasters have lost their jobs, been imprisoned, and left traumatised by the Post Office’s actions.

There has been a recent update – on 9 September 2014 a report commissioned by the Post Office has claimed that in many cases the computer system wasn’t ‘fit for purpose’. More information can be found on the BBC website, but it seems mediation with the Post Office is now a viable scenario.

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